Grooming online has increased

You could describe the situation during the COVID-19 pandemic as almost a perfect storm, as the increase of children online has presented a great opportunity for pedophiles. At the same time industry platforms have had to rely on AI instead of human moderation. This has led to more imagery being available while there has been a decrease in content moderation and control.

By Simon Bailey, National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead on Child Protection, UK

We were always going to be concerned about the risks to children during lockdown, with many children spending more time online and on social media. We also recognized that pedophiles were likely to take the opportunity to exploit that. As we have come out of lockdown, we have seen that those concerns were justified.

Recent statistics show a big increase in grooming offences, and the number of referrals continues to increase. More and more children are coming forward and reporting crimes, and whereas we see a decrease in other child-based crimes, the number of reports of online grooming is greater than would have been expected in a “normal” year.

Reliance on AI

As the pandemic has forced industry to send staff home, platform providers have relied on AI moderation of their platforms. We are greatly concerned that as a result there is now more CSAM on their sites than there would normally be. As we eventually come out of the COVID crisis and human moderators resume their work, it is likely that they will identify more imagery, particularly first generation, which will greatly increase post pandemic law enforcement workload.

My view is that the lockdowns and social restrictions have provided greater opportunities online for existing pedophiles.

Growing offending community

My view is that the lockdowns and social restrictions have provided greater opportunities online for existing paedophiles. I also think that the offending community may be growing, as a consequence of lockdown. I base that on the reports from the Lucy Faithfull foundation of an increasing group of habitual pornography users who have started to look to CSAM to get kicks. It is something that we have to do research on to know for sure, but it is a real risk, concern and challenge.

Policing response

The policing response in the UK has remained as robust as ever during the COVID crises. This is illustrated in both the number of arrests and children safeguarded, which has continued to increase every quarter since the start of the pandemic. However, the judicial system has definitely been affected by the lockdowns, which means that there is a backlog in processes. It will continue to affect law enforcement in many ways, as we, for example, have to remain involved with victims and witnesses for much longer than we normally would.