Police overwhelmed by tsunami of child sex abuse images

Police are struggling to cope with the numbers of images available. Credit: ITV News

John Carr OBE is a government adviser on online child safety, and one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of the internet.

He is currently a senior visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

The latest figures from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) make depressing reading. The volume of child abuse images being reported and detected on the internet continues to increase and not in small steps but in huge ones.

In their latest report the IWF recorded 40% growth year on year and the proportion of material featuring the sexual abuse of children under the age of 10 is also up, from 81% to 88% of all the illegal images examined. 61% of these images depicted images of rape or torture.

While technological changes may account for some of the increased level of reports the overall trajectory is abundantly clear. Things are not getting better.

Read: Number of child sex abuse images online 'up by 40%'

Only parts of the internet

Moreover it’s important to remember the IWF only deals with parts of the internet not all of it. There are huge swathes of cyberspace where the IWF has no writ, where only the police can act. I’m thinking in particular about peer-to-peer networks.

In my travels around the world I meet law enforcement officers from lots of countries and they all say the same thing: they are overwhelmed by the volume of child abuse images, and that’s only the ones they know about. They cannot investigate all of it. They are managing a crisis.

Every day police officers are making triage decisions as a means of determining which cases to take up next. The most urgent or maybe sometimes the easiest will be selected while the rest get stuck in that great invisible inbox in the sky. Returning to Britain the police are cagey about how well they are coping with the tsunami of online child abuse images but in times of austerity, with police cutbacks, it is impossible to imagine we are completely on top of it.

Watch: CEOP chief 'Internet helping police trace child sex offenders'

Gigantic numbers of images

Occasionally we get glimpses of the scale of the problem that the UK has to face in the 21st Century. The NSPCC issued freedom of information requests to police forces in England and Wales asking them to disclose how many child abuse images they had seized in a two year period up to April, 2012. Only five forces replied.

Between them they had seized 26 million. If those numbers were ramped up across the whole country this means anywhere between 150 and 360 million images may have been seized by all forces in the same timeframe.

These are truly mind-boggling numbers, particularly when set against the grand total of 7,000 images the UK police knew about in 1995, arguably the Internet’s Year Zero.

How many people are trading in child abuse images?

Peter Davies, CEO of the UK’s specialist policing unit for online crimes against children, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, (CEOP) last year revealed that they were aware of between 50,000 and 60,000 individuals swapping or downloading child abuse images over peer to peer networks.

We were assured these people would be “hunted down” and maybe they will, be but we should note that in no year since records began have the police in England and Wales ever arrested more than 2,500 individuals for child abuse image related offences.

Who are they?

What do we know about these 50,000-60,000 people? Again according to CEOP, aside from the crime they have committed by downloading a child abuse image in the first place, each person has to be regarded as a potential child abuser in the future. Now it is exceptionally unlikely that even half of the given total will go so far as to molest their own or anyone else’s children but we just do not yet have sophisticated enough tools to identify the most likely individuals.

Conservatively around 15% may go that far but it may well be higher. Thus, the police have in their hands right now the identities of, at least, somewhere between 7,500 and 9,000 individuals who will probably commit a hands on sexual offence against a child but I see no serious signs of anything like that number being pinpointed and arrested any time soon. I’m amazed there aren't demonstrations in Trafalgar Square about this shocking state of affairs.

Stop the first crime being committed

As with any and every area of criminal activity the single most important objective of policy has to be stopping a person from committing their first crime, the one that sets them off on a pathway to further crimes. This is particularly true in the case of child abuse image offences where undoubtedly there is a highly opportunistic element to the crime of downloading. People working psychotherapeutically with men convicted of child abuse images offences reckon that at least half of them would never have got involved with the images in the first place if there had been even the most minimal barriers, diversions or warnings put in their way.

Watch: Child protection charity says the internet 'clearly facilitates' abuse

A warning shot

In the UK if someone tries to use the internet to reach an internet address that is known to contain child abuse images, depending on the access provider, they may well find they receive a message which reads something like this. You have attempted to reach an address which contains illegal child abuse images. This may have been accidental but if it was not and you persist you should know that the police may be able to discover who you are and where you live.

A substantial proportion of people reading that message will get the fright of their lives and a high percentage of them will never try it again, not least because they will know that any illusions about them being able to shelter behind the internet’s anonymity are simply that, illusions. I think we need to find ways to get more messages like this to the right people at the right time.

Read: Adult porn drawing users towards illegal images of child abuse

More warning shots

Here’s my suggestion: all the search engine companies have a lexicon of paedophilic search terms. The IWF compiles it. Every time anyone enters a query which indicates they are looking for child abuse images a message of the sort I have just shown should flash up on their screen.

We shouldn’t wait until they happen upon or find an illegal address. Then it’s probably too late. The crime has been committed. We should try to knock them off course before then.


Norton has constructed a wonderful tool that warns you if a web site you might be thinking about visiting has got poor security or may contain malware of various kinds. Maybe they could find a way to utilise the child abuse dictionary to warn people that this or that site may contain illegal child abuse content? Again this would strip away the naïve belief that you can surf without consequences. As a result children would be saved from the ordeal of abuse.

Read: How to report images of child sex abuse

A new weapon

Finally I think all of the search engine companies should either take a great deal more care about the sort of ostensibly legal porn sites they provide access to e.g. only allow sites within the .xxx domain, or they should set themselves up as being entirely porn free by default.

Obviously the search engines will rarely if ever provide anyone with a direct path to a site providing child abuse images but they will often take to you hard core porn sites which, through links, will almost certainly eventually get you to such sites.

We cannot solve this problem through conventional policing methods.

The high tech industries need to get on board or face ever more strident calls for tighter internet regulation.

John Carr's views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.

Read more on his blog, or follow him on Twitter.