Nearly all indicators point to an increase in child sexual abuse crimes
The law enforcement officers who responded to the survey (conducted June – October 2020), which formed the basis for The NetClean Report – COVID-19 Impact 2020, reported an increase in online child sexual abuse crime, but only a moderate increase in actual investigations and cases of child sexual abuse reported to law enforcement. Experts in the report predicted a surge of reports when life returns more to normal and official reporting routes are reinstated (e.g. schools).
Rob Jones, Director Threat Leadership, National Crime Agency, UK commented in the report on how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected child sexual abuse crime in the UK.
By Rob Jones, Director Threat Leadership, National Crime Agency, UK.
There will be a lag in the data that shows the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child sexual abuse (CSA) crime. However, what we see is that all indicators point to that CSA has increased during the pandemic. The concern is that there’s not a corresponding increase in referrals from industry into NCMEC and onward reporting to law enforcement, which could mean that many crimes go undetected and unreported.
An important indicator is the number of individuals that have contacted the Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s ‘Stop it now’ hotline, which provides support for people concerned about their sexual feelings and behaviour. It has nearly doubled, from more than 300 every week in March to more than 600 in August. Data from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation also indicates that some individuals have developed this interest in lockdown.
Dark web offending was also on the increase, even before lockdown began. In 2019, 3.45 million accounts were registered globally across the ten most harmful CSA dark web sites, a near 20 percent increase over that of the preceding year.
During the school closures, we saw a downturn in reports from professionals. Simultaneously, we saw an uptick in reports from children and other reporters to Click CEOP*, which suggests that victims may have been locked down with their abusers and unable to reach out to professionals. From the time that schools opened again there has been a 130 percent increase in reports from professionals, compared to the same period last year.
During the school closures, children spent more time online, often without parental supervision. Use of livestreaming platforms, such as TikTok, increased sharply, and there are also indications of more captures of livestreaming by offenders. There is a gap in the data in this area, but for now we are working on the assumption that more offending has taken place.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reports seeing an increase in self-generated images during the period, with some 50 percent of their time having been spent on self- generated material.
Searches for CSAM
The IWF also reports a steeper increase than expected in blocked attempts to access websites known to contain child sexual abuse material (CSAM). This data reflects activity on home networks during the period of the first lockdown in the UK.
“We intensified and coordinated efforts which led to 98 arrests, of which fourteen worked in positions of trust. More than two hundred children were safeguarded.”
Concern about industry referrals
To summarise, all intelligence indicates an increased problem. The one exception that we see, and a big concern that we have, is that the increase is not reflected in industry referrals to NCMEC. The number of referrals has remained stable throughout this period.
Our assumption, or fear, is that industry (such as Facebook) opted to lean on the side of caution rather than child protection. What I mean by that is that when industry moderators could no longer work in the office, they could not review CSAM. Instead, industry relied on AI and machine learning. To avoid false positives, these AI applications may have been set at a very conservative level, which would produce a smaller amount of results. The result may lead to CSA and CSAM going undetected and unreported.
Law enforcement capacity
CSA is a national priority in the UK, and we sustained our capacity during this period. We went to remote work where we could, and took measures to minimise risk to officers. Infection rates among our headcount have been low, and we have managed to organise our workload well. It’s been a challenge, but if anything our levels of activity went up.
At the start of the pandemic, there were indications that offenders saw it as an opportunity. Therefore, we intensified and coordinated efforts which led to 98 arrests, of which fourteen worked in positions of trust. More than two hundred children were safeguarded. We also launched an education campaign, #onlinesafetyathome, aimed at carers, teachers and parents, these resources have been downloaded more than half a million times.