How child sexual abuse material is stored

  • Laptops, mobile phones and USB sticks are the most common storage spaces.
  • Storage on mobile phones shows the biggest increase.
  • There is both known and unknown material in most investigations.

To understand how to find and tackle child sexual abuse material it is important to understand how it is stored and collected, and if the methods for storing material is changing with developing technologies.

Laptops, mobile phones and USB sticks are the most common storage spaces

Pretty much all possible storage devices are commonly used to store child sexual abuse material, according to the surveyed police officers. Nearly half of the respondents answered that they come across child sexual abuse material on almost all storage spaces.

Physical devices

More than nine in ten of the surveyed police officers answered that they find child sexual abuse on computers, laptops and mobile phones. Nearly as many answered USB sticks or other portable devices. This makes computers/laptops, mobile phones and USB sticks the most common storage devices that child sexual abuse is found on in police investigations. When not only asked what they find, but also what is most common, these three types of storage were also clearly rated as the most common by the surveyed police officers.

“ Computers/Laptops, Mobile Phones, USB or other portable devices.”

“ Portable devices become more common if the computers or laptops are shared.”

“ I wouldn’t put much space between these – I think mobile is really on the rise, but USB devices that can go from mobile devices to PC/Mac as well.”

More than one in six also answered that they find child sexual abuse material on tablets and half of the respondents answered that they find it on cameras and memory cards.

Online storage

Eight in ten respondents answered that they find child sexual abuse material on cloud storage solutions, which makes cloud storage nearly as common as USB sticks and other portable devices. This was also rated as the fourth most common type of storage space by the surveyed police officers.

Devices and other storage spaces that are used to store child sexual abuse material

Devices and other storage spaces, that are used to store child sexual abuse material, that police officers rate as most common

“ Cloud storage seems to be coming more prevalent with offenders sharing links to cloud storage, rather than risk sending / receiving images.”

“ Most cases the offender has imagery stored on computer related device. However more often larger quantities of images are stored within the cloud. This makes it difficult to trace.”

Half of the surveyed police officers answered that they find child sexual abuse material on social media apps. One third answered that they also find it stored in e-mails.

Storage on mobile phones shows the biggest increase

More than eight in ten of the surveyed police officers answered that storage on different types of devices has increased in the last three years. When asked which devices have increased, one third answered storage on mobile phones. One fifth answered that computers and laptops, cloud storage, and USB sticks and external hard drives have increased.

“ Phones and cloud storage have both increased significantly.”

“ Computer hard drives and portable storage devices.”

“ Cloud based trading. Offenders commonly use chat programs to share links where there are buckets and buckets of illegal materials in the folders.”

Nearly sixteen percent answered that it is the increase in storage capacity on all types of devices, such as larger hard drives, that has driven the increase in different types of storage spaces.

“ Pretty much every type of device has increased its storage size.”

“ Storage capacity in all devices has increased.”

Whether there has been an increase in types of devices / storage spaces to store child sexual abuse material over the past three years?

Increase in type of device or storage space, used to store child sexual abuse material, over the past three years

There is both known and unknown material in most investigations

The police officers were also asked to quantify how much material is known and already classified as child sexual abuse when they start on a case. This is important for many different reasons. One is to understand how much old material is in circulation, and to know how much new material is produced. Another reason is to understand the caseloads that law enforcement professionals are dealing with, and the amount of work that they have to undertake when analysing child sexual abuse cases.

The respondents were asked to first report how much material was already known in their latest case. If they did not know this, they were asked to estimate their “average” case. Sixty-four percent of the respondents answered the first question, thirty-six percent answered the second.

Latest case

There is a fairly even spread in the answers to how much material was already known or classified from the start of the police officers’ latest investigations.

Four in ten of the respondents answered that more than fifty percent of their latest case consisted of already known material. One in twenty answered that as much as hundred percent of their latest case consisted of known material, and nearly one in ten said that more than ninety percent was already known. In contrast, nearly six in ten answered that less than fifty percent of their latest case consisted of already known material. Nearly one in ten said that their latest case contained no previously known material at all, and one in ten said that only up to ten percent was known before.

Average case

Of the respondents who estimated their average case, half reported that fifty percent or more of their cases normally contain already known material, whereas the other half reported that their average case usually has less than fifty percent known material.

No clear trend

The numbers don’t present a clear trend of how much material is generally unknown or known in a case. This indicates that there is both a lot of known material in circulation, but also that a lot of new material is being produced.

In nearly all cases there is unclassified, previously unseen child sexual abuse material, and in many these unknown images and videos are a large share of the case. These images do not only need to be classified for the future, they are also important in the work to identify and safeguard child victims.

Simultaneously, the numbers show that in many cases a large share of the images and videos are already known, pointing to the help law enforcement can get from being able to filter images out so that they do not have to look through all the material.

Share of child sexual abuse images and videos that were already known/classified in the respondents latest case

Share of child sexual abuse images and videos that were already known/classified in the respondents average case (if they were unable to specify their latest case)

Comment to insight 4-5

More results from the NetClean Report 2019