Turning the tide on online child sexual abuse

Blog post

Turning the tide on online child sexual abuse

Michael Skidmore and Beth Aitkenhead

One of the biggest challenges facing policing and law enforcement is how to respond to the growing challenge of online child sexual abuse (CSA). A new report published today by the Police Foundation shows that this is a volume crime. In 2021 US tech companies discovered 21.7 million incidents in which child sexual abuse material (CSAM) had been shared on their platforms, 30,000 of which resulted in referrals to UK police.

Added to this, there has been a surge in the number of victims reporting online abuse. Over 6,000 offences were reported to the police in 2020-21, an increase of 400 per cent compared to just four years earlier.

This surge in reporting poses a number of challenges for the police. Perhaps most significantly the police lack the capacity to respond to the growing levels of reporting. Within police forces CSAM caseloads can mount up, creating delays in the delivery of potentially time-critical safeguarding interventions.

Amid these volumes there is also the challenge of prioritisation: every incidence of online CSA presents a risk to a child, but there is no way the police could ever pursue all of them. Indeed there is a considerable diversity of threat within the overall numbers. For example, a high proportion of suspects referred to the police are actually children. 72 per cent of images discovered by the Internet Watch Foundation in 2021 were self-generated by the child or young person. The underlying context for producing the image is often unknown but can range from exploitation by an adult offender to consensual sharing between two young people in an age-appropriate relationship.

Adult offenders can range from those who view or share CSAM, others who engage in direct forms of online abuse such as sexual grooming, and composite offenders that perpetrate both online and offline forms of child sexual abuse. While those who pose a physical threat take priority, identifying these more serious offenders requires considerable sifting through large volumes of reported CSAM offences. Moreover, many of the most serious offenders are unlikely to be included in the high volume of referrals from industry. There is a widespread view among police investigators that their work is currently too focused on picking the “low hanging fruit” while the most serious offenders go undetected.

There is also a capability gap. Serious online or offline abuse is most commonly discovered by applying proactive investigative techniques and resources that are able to get under the surface of each identified offence. For example, a single CSAM case can lead to the discovery of more serious sexual abuse by the suspect or lead to the identification of a child depicted in the CSAM. Proactive resources include digital forensics analysts, specialist CSA investigators and covert investigators. There is however a significant deficit in resources to undertake proactive investigation on the scale required. For example, in a survey for our report 69 per cent of online CSA leads reported insufficient resource in their digital forensic teams and 52 per cent in their specialist investigation teams. The limited scope for proactive investigation and safeguarding was particularly apparent in the response to local children reporting online abuse, most of which falls within the remit of local police teams.

The final challenge relates to the degree of international police, judicial and private sector cooperation required to investigate these offences. By virtue of being online, a single identified offence or offender can reach into a multitude of jurisdictions and so effective law enforcement or safeguarding requires seamless cooperative arrangements between relevant authorities. Divergent legal and policy frameworks and practical challenges in securing timely and reliable support from overseas agencies creates a considerable barrier to both criminal investigations and safeguarding. There are even challenges between agencies within the UK that operate to different policies and priorities, often reflecting divergent interpretations of risk. In this regard, investment into investigation or safeguarding can be swiftly undermined once the case falls outside of their jurisdiction, and the recipient authority does not accord it the same priority.

So, what should be done to enable the police and others to meet this challenge? First, there is a need for more effective prioritisation within the range of online CSA offences, enabling the police and the National Crime Agency to focus on those who pose the most serious risk to children (namely those who pose a physical threat).

We recommend that, following investigation, offenders identified as low risk should receive a conditional caution, be placed on relevant child safeguarding databases and enrolled in a psycho-educational programme. Under the current system 72 per cent of CSAM offenders do not go to prison, but this reform would relieve some of the pressure on the police and the wider criminal justice system and at the same time address the risk of recidivism by using the “teachable moment” of an arrest to address the causes of offending. This would allow the police to focus more resource on going after the most serious offenders.

There should be exemptions to the law relating to the consensual exchange of CSAM between children aged 13-17. Instead of criminalising children for consensually sending pictures to each other, there should be a more educational and supportive approach to address risk and safeguarding, with the police involvement focused on dealing with cases in which there is identified risk of abuse or exploitative behaviour.

There should also be an increased focus by the police on serious online offending. A large volume of the abuse and exploitation that occurs online does not lead to an offline engagement. Understandably, all police structures are focused on dealing with offenders who present a risk of contact abuse, and fewer resources focused on identifying and assessing the online dimensions of risk. The report recommends that the National Crime Agency builds on current resources to establish a team that is focused on investigating and disrupting offenders causing the greatest online harm.

There is also a need to invest in enhancing police and law enforcement capability to tackle the problem. The National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing should map current skills against required capabilities in relation to tackling online CSA. This exercise should then inform a new national plan to recruit and train the people required to address identified skills deficits. In addition to specialist investigators, there is a need to ensure that generalist officers on the frontline have the capabilities to effectively support and advise children at risk as well as victims and their parents.

Technological solutions are critical to the effective and efficient management of the growing volumes of data and to drive more proactive interventions to tackle serious abuse. This requires investment in IT systems to be able to quickly process the high volume of data collected in each investigation; automate the processes for grading CSAM; analyse new and existing CSAM to generate new intelligence and drive proactive interventions; and monitor online behaviours of convicted offenders to effectively manage the risk of reoffending.

Finally, we should do more to prevent online CSA from happening in the first place. This includes doing more to divert potential offenders early on via targeted communications on URLs in open and dark web spaces that are known to contain CSAM; investing more in offender treatment services to tackle the behaviours of those who recognise they have problem and are willing to address it and greater monitoring of the online behaviour of known offenders.

There is a danger of becoming fatalistic when faced with the volumes of offences described above. But with a renewed focus on prevention, with greater focus on the most serious forms of harm and with more people and better technology, we can begin to turn the tide.