ONLINE CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE ACTIVITY HAS INCREASED

Key findings

/ Law enforcement has noticed an increase in attempts to contact children, volumes of voluntarily self-produced CSAM, and in peer-to-peer downloads.

/ There has been an increase in activity on the darknet and some police officers report a change in the nature of posts on darknet boards.

/ Reports of the effect on online child sexual abuse activity vary between different countries.

/ Police officers report an increase in the number of offenders and an increase in activity in already existing offender communities.

Online activity, such as downloads of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, activity on the darknet, and activity by offenders on social media platforms, is monitored by law enforcement and used to provide intelligence. This information gives an indication of how active child sexual abuse (CSA) offenders have been during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The information presented in this chapter is closely connected to online reporting and cybertips (covered in Insight 3), which means a certain overlap between the two.

WHETHER THERE HAS BEEN A CHANGE IN ONLINE ACTIVITY DURING THE COVID-19 PERIOD.

Difference between countries

Nearly half of the respondents reported a change in online activity during the COVID-19 period. As with the previous insight, answers differed depending on countries/regions. The European sample showed numbers similar to the whole, 46 percent, whereas the UK was slightly lower with 37 percent. A bigger share, six in ten, of the US respondents reported a change in online activity, whereas this number was much lower for the Swedish respondents, only two in ten.

Increase in all areas

Respondents who reported a change in online activity were also asked what changes they had seen. A majority of the respondents reported that they had seen an increase in attempts to contact children, in the volumes of self-produced material and in downloads of CSAM on P2P networks. An increase was also reported for activity on darknet forums and boards, livestreamed CSA and number of websites on the open web that contain CSAM.

TYPES OF CHANGES TO ONLINE ACTIVITY.

Attempts to contact children

Eight in ten police officers reported an increase (considerable or moderate) in perpetrators attempting to contact children online, whereas six in ten police officers reported an increase in self-produced CSAM.

“Our undercover teams monitoring teen chat forums have seen exponential increases in number of users on the boards and more aggressive solicitations for images from users.”

“More chat forum based activity and children posting self-generated IIOC [Indecent Images Of Children] via mainstream social media.”

“Attempts to contact children through live streaming apps used for school.”

“Children seem more likely to self-victimise than they did before. Victimisation of younger children has increased due to issuing of Chromebooks [to younger children than before.]”

P2P networks

Six in ten police officers reported an increase in downloads of CSAM on P2P networks.

“Increase in CSAM through older P2P networks.”

Contrary to this, a few police officers commented that P2P activity had decreased during COVID-19.

“I believe the decrease was due to peer-to-peer users being quarantined with other people and not having their privacy to operate on peer-to-peer networks as usual.”

Darknet

Half of the respondents said that they had seen an increase in activity on darknet forums and CSAM boards.

“I have seen a significant increase in non-US based encrypted chat platforms as an alternative to TOR. I have also seen increased coordination and sharing of techniques amongst offenders. I have also noticed as offenders are home due to COVID, new relationships have been built across time zones as offenders that aren’t normally online at the same time now have more time online. Increased alone time for offenders has increased their networking online.”

“Significant increase in traffic in the first month alone on the dark web, traffic was around 15–20% relating to forums and chats for child sexual exploitation.”

Nature of posts

More than one in ten police officers reported seeing a change in the nature of posts on CSAM boards on the darknet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost the same number of respondents answered that they had not seen this change. Also relevant to note is that the large majority of respondents answered “don’t know” to this question, which makes it difficult to draw any major conclusions.

WHETHER THE NATURE OF POSTS ON DARKNET BOARDS HAS CHANGED DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.

When asked to elaborate on how the nature of posts had changed, the respondents primarily mentioned an increase in demand for newly produced CSAM, an increase in shared imagery, and discussions around how COVID-19 has increased opportunities for offenders to get access to children.

“At the onset of the pandemic there was increased discussion among offenders on how the COVID-19 pandemic may be an opportunity for them to offend with greater ease either in person or online (as more children were at home and online).”

“More self-produced content. I have also seen a significant uptick in hacked home security camera footage. On a certain non-US encrypted chat platform there are entire groups dedicated to the trading of hacked cameras, both CSAM and voyeur content.”

“A lot of COVID specific comments and forums where child sexual offenders are discussing the opportunities lockdown presents as well as detailing their increased access to their children.”

Many are uncertain

Around ten percent of respondents reported unchanged activity across different online activities. Hardly any police officers noted a decrease. Instead, most of the police officers who didn’t note an increase, between 30-50 percent, answered that they don’t know.

An increase in active individuals

Nearly half of the police officers who reported an increase in online activity, answered that they believed that individuals already active in downloading and sharing CSAM had become more active during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly two thirds of the police officers also reported that more individuals had become active in downloading and sharing CSAM during the pandemic.

WHETHER INCREASES IN ONLINE ACTIVITY IS A RESULT OF THE SAME INDIVIDUALS AS BEFORE BECOMING MORE ACTIVE, OR IF MORE INDIVIDUALS HAVE BECOME ACTIVE IN DOWNLOADING AND SHARING CSAM.

“Offenders’ posting behaviour is impacted in different ways; new individuals (and infrequent users) have decided to join and participate on child sexual exploitation forums as they are working from home. Others have had to step away and/or decreased their activity as their families are also home and in close proximity.”

“This was an extremely intriguing question. Social isolation can have a significant effect on a person’s mental/social well-being … but whether this can lead to otherwise untapped predilections for child sexual abuse materials I’m not sure.”

More results from the NetClean Report 2020