European police chiefs back NCA demands for technology companies to do more to prevent child sex abuse

Senior European police leaders have backed a National Crime Agency (NCA) demand for a “zero tolerance” approach from technology companies to counter the extreme level of online child sexual abuse.

Feb 14, 2020
By Paul Jacques

The NCA says there is a direct link between offenders viewing abuse material online and going on to sexually abuse children themselves.

“In just three clicks our officers could locate child sexual abuse on the open web,” said NCA Director-General Lynne Owens.

“There is no barrier to offending and that cannot continue.”

The NCA is seeing increases in the scale, complexity and severity of online child sexual abuse.

At the worst end, offenders incite each other to commit increasingly horrific abuse of children they have access to.

Child sex offenders who want access to the most disturbing dark web sites or encrypted apps are forced to produce their own ‘first generation’ abuse material to be allowed to join.

It is believed the vast majority of offenders will have begun offending by watching child sexual abuse on the open web, says the NCA.

This week, the Government said it was considering appointing Ofcom as regulator against online harms and to make the internet a safer place.

Now, Ms Owens has reached agreement from European police chiefs to endorse five ‘asks’ of the technology industry. They are:

• Child sexual abuse material should be blocked as soon as companies detect it being uploaded;

• Companies must stop online grooming taking place on their platforms;

• Companies must work with governments and law enforcement partners to stop the live-streaming of child abuse on their platforms;

• Companies should be demonstrably more forward leaning in helping law enforcement agencies to deal with child sexual exploitation; and

• Companies should show improved openness and transparency, and a willingness to share best practice and technology between companies.

European police chiefs have insisted child safety must be “built-in by design”, and that the right balance can struck between protecting users’ privacy, and protecting people, particularly children, from criminal harm.

“While European law enforcement officers will relentlessly pursue offenders, the technology industry urgently needs to transform its response to counter the extreme level of online offending. The current industry response is reactive,” said Ms Owens.

“To stop the pathway of escalation into severe offending, there must be zero tolerance of the presence of child sexual abuse on industry platforms, with industry reinforcing this at every level to raise the bar to offending.

“The sheer volume of child sexual abuse material available online creates a permissive environment for offenders to develop their sexual interest in children.

“The relative ease of entry into viewing abuse material can lead to incitement to actually abuse children.

“Offenders are not just viewing images online. They are actively targeting children globally via commercial platforms to manipulate and extort explicit imagery from them, or to gain access to them in person.”

She added that live-streamed abuse for commercial purposes was a growing threat; for as little as £10 to £20, offenders can orchestrate the abuse, in real-time, against a child of their choice.

“Offenders across Europe and globally are using the web to groom and harm children on the mainstream internet, using dark web tools to provide anonymity. Children previously inaccessible to offenders, based anywhere in the world, are now exposed to significant risk of harm, even within their own homes,” said Ms Owens.

The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the US is the central point where industry reports discoveries of online child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

The global level of industry referrals is rocketing – up 1,573 per cent from 2014 to 18.4 million referrals in 2018.

Once NCMEC has processed where it thinks offences were committed, it refers the cases to individual countries. The majority of European countries received more than 10,000 reports of CSAM from NCMEC in 2018, with many larger countries receiving more 50,000 reports. The UK received 113,948.

The NCA believes that unless technology companies do more proactive work, the problem is only going to worsen.

The technology used by offenders continues to evolve, adding further complexity to investigators trying to disrupt and catch them. At the same time, the increasing use of encryption as standard by industry platforms has the potential to render important law enforcement tools such as ‘block lists’ – which prevent access to CSAM online – ineffective, exposing more children to harm.

Netherlands Police Commissioner Erik Akerboom said: “Online sexual child abuse causes long-term harmful effects on victims, which impacts their lives in a far greater way than is generally understood.

“Removing and stopping the spreading of these images should be at the forefront of the mind of industry.

“European police chiefs see an increasing need for tech companies to work together to create a new safety standard and introduce safety by design that apply to new applications, games and social media platforms.

“These standards should not be forced upon the industry by governments but developed by themselves, creating a safety standard for their users. The aim should be to safeguard our children and children all over the world against perpetrators that viciously target them.”

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