What happens to the consumption of child sexual abuse material when millions of people work from home?

Work computers are used to download, consume and share child sexual abuse material, and we know that this criminal behavior increases when employees remove computers from the office. As the Corona virus has restricted our daily lifes and many employees now work from home, we risk seeing an increase in this behavior.

In 2018, we at NetClean conducted a study which showed that 1 in 500 work computers was used to handle (download, consume or share) child sexual abuse material. The study also showed that most of the alerts, triggered by detection software, occurred when the computer was away from the workplace.

The study was conducted with a number of NetClean customers, who together had an installation base of nearly 270 000 work computers. The timing of the alerts was often outside of working hours (during evenings, holidays, leave and work trips), and also during downtime in the workplace, e.g. during lunch hours or early in the morning. The study also showed that it was not uncommon for individuals to turn off the internet and network connection in an attempt to avoid detection.

Alerts from any part of the organization

Employees who triggered alerts came from all parts of the organizations, and from all tiers of responsibility. There was a slight bias towards people with higher academic achievement and with a background in technology, however this was believed to be because they more often have a work computer; in many cases a laptop.

In this unprecedented situation where the COVID-19 virus has changed our daily routines and forced a large section of workforces to work from home, it is not unreasonable to assume that the risk of child sexual abuse material being downloaded, consumed or shared via the work computer is increasing. By protecting the business IT environment, children will also be protected.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the risk of child sexual abuse material being downloaded, consumed or shared via the work computer is increasing

Reports of risk to children

There have been numerous recent reports of the increased risk to children when they spend more unsupervised time on the internet as a result of the Corona crises, closed schools and millions of people social distancing or in quarantine.

On March 23 2020, the FBI warned that school closings due to COVID-19 present an increased risk of child exploitation. Similar warnings have come from many NGO’s such as the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in the UK, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the US and UNICEF.

Increase in circulation of child sexual abuse material

On 27 March 2020, the Swedish National Police reported that they had seen increased offender activity in forums, where offenders openly expressed that there is easy access to children online at the moment. They also reported seeing an increase in the sharing of child sexual abuse material online following the Corona crises. We must act swiftly to combat this now and prepare for a future where our children might be more vulnerable online, whether this be due to another virus epidemic or because of developments in technology.

One image can make all the difference

The business survey from the NetClean Report 2018 showed that the majority (but not all) alerts triggered on work computers followed from the consumption of one or two illicit images. Still, just one image can make all the difference. The interviewed businesses reported that in the majority of cases where they had further knowledge of the case (more than the alert itself), the police had found further material or catalogue structures that clearly contained online child sexual abuse material on the computer. When the police conducted house searches at the employee’s home, more material had been found in a majority of cases.

Finding and stopping the spread of images is important to stop the revictimisation that occurs every time a child sexual abuse image is shared and viewed. By following the trail of a detected image, more images can be found and victims can be identified and rescued.

If all businesses and organisations in the world – billions of computers and networks – took appropriate action, the opportunity to find and disrupt the spread of online child sexual material would increase infinitely. With millions of people now working from home, this is as important as ever.