Cybercrime and online child sexual abuse – In conversation with Neil J Walsh

Cybercrime and online child sexual abuse – In conversation with Neil J Walsh
16 May, 2018 Guest Writer
In Child protection

Cybercrime and online child sexual abuse – In conversation with Neil J Walsh

We were recently fortunate enough to have a conversation with Neil J Walsh from the UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) about the UN’s work combatting online child sexual abuse. Here he tells us a bit more about how the UN is responding to the ever growing problem of child sexual abuse and how it has developed into a widespread cybercrime.

Q: How does the UNODC deal with online child sexual abuse?

— UNODC is a diplomatic agency with a legal mandate to focus on developing countries – places that have socio-economic challenges, and low capabilities and challenges within policing, prosecution and the judiciary. We have no powers to enforce the law, however the people who work with me all have a policing or law enforcement background. Our job is to roll out cybercrime programmes that develop policing, legal and educational work. We use, as an example, the ‘We Protect National Response’ model to encourage businesses to act at carrier level and play an active part in blocking defined online child sexual exploitation and abuse material. All this helps bring the conversation out of the shadows, and enable cross government responses to help children. In fact, on 14th May, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, was with me in Vienna to address the challenges of cybercrime and UNODC’s leadership in the response.

Q: Do you think people recognise that this is a problem everywhere?

— I still meet politicians and decision makers that say “this does not happen here” (although thankfully this is getting less). There can be several different reasons for this. Often it is because there is no awareness that the abuse happens online, sometimes it is because the country doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the problem, and sometimes it is because raising the issue could potentially put them in a complicated political situation. It falls on us then to show decision-makers and influencers that this happens everywhere, and in their countries too.

Neil J Walsh

Q: How do you view the development of online child sexual abuse?

— When we first started seeing this, 10-15 years ago, the global community was too slow to react. We should have acted faster and highlighted that this is a much bigger problem than first anticipated. We thought that only a very small group of people were sexually interested in children. Now we know that this is not the case, and the number of people who are interested in this sort of material and the amount of data that exists continues to horrify everyone who works on this issue.

An early response would have improved on things, however this is a complicated crime, and coordinating the response is difficult. The perpetrator can be in one country, data in another and the victim in a third. It means international collaboration is necessary, but disparate definitions and laws in different jurisdictions can make cooperation between countries difficult. We know that criminals can easily pick countries where the risk of detection is minimal, and focus their activities there.

“It falls on us then, to show decision-makers and influencers that this happens everywhere, and in their countries too.”

Q: How do you address the fact that the global community was slow off the mark?

— To begin with, we need to move away from the idea that this is just a police responsibility. You can’t arrest your way out of this problem. This is where companies such as NetClean come in, adding to the solution by offering a preventative way of working. Limiting access and increasing detection is one crucial way to stop the material from spreading. We know that we have to be pro-active, and that simply waiting for police to do something after the crime has been reported is not the way forward.

Q: What do you expect from the future?

— We need to get into a much stronger international cooperation space. Blocking needs to become the norm. My own personal view, and not an official view of the UNODC, is that we need to start looking at the licensing agreements that are drawn up with internet service providers (ISPs). We need to find language that we can put into agreements that encourages blocking and reporting of child sexual abuse material, but that simultaneously does not open up a door to abuse of human rights legislation. We need to make sure we keep using hash-lists with credibility. We need to get to a point where all companies and countries take responsibility, where they take action and are held accountable. Basically, we need to find a way to protect children without stomping on human rights or compromising any other internet activity.

Q: Apart from blocking – what is the most effective way of tackling online child sexual abuse?

— Talking about it. Using evidence-based material and explaining what the abuse actually is, and how it affects children and communities. Last year I spoke to 90 parliamentarians from 40 different countries. Most of them had never heard of online child sexual abuse. They had heard of paedophiles, but they did not understand what is happening online and the consequences of this. We need more people advocating for children. We have to find a way to deal with social taboos, and have an adult discussion about what the risks are. We need to get into schools and empower children to help them talk about this crime. We also need to ensure that children understand and learn how to mitigate the risks associated with the internet and social media.

“We need to get into a much stronger international cooperation space.”

Q: What more could the UN do to tackle this problem?

— The UN needs to talk about this problem more. We need an approach that is ethical and that works well in the jurisdiction where it exists. We have experience and perspective, and so we need to get the right people round the table to work on this problem. We need to change the dialogue to ‘these are your responsibilities’, and also to ‘what are your challenges?’ and ‘how can we help with that?’ This can be bashing at the same door constantly, but we need to do this and we need to talk about this in an open and honest way.

Q: What does the UNODC need to be more effective in fighting this crime?

— We are not funded by the regular budget by the UN, so too much of our work goes into raising funding. To ensure that we can be more effective we need a group of governments, and a group of philanthropists to support us longer term.

In Central America, we’ve seen over 20,000 kids, and the outcome is that children have spoken up about their experiences, and societies that have come together to prevent this crime. Our training led to, in one case, a prolific paedophile being identified, and jailed for abusing more than 80 children. Policing and jurisdiction works when we stay invested. I know that the work that we do saves lives, and with a lot more funding we can save more lives.


Neil J Walsh is Chief of the Cybercrime, Counter-Terrorism and Anti-Money Laundering Department, Organized Crime and Illicit Trafficking Branch Division for Treaty Affairs, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Prior to joining the UNODC in 2016, Walsh served for over 15 years in the UK National Crime Agency countering international serious organised crime and terrorism.