I made two Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the UK’s Ministry of Justice. I asked for the latest official data on offences involving indecent images of children for England and Wales. The final set of answers arrived last week.
I expect many people imagined that after all the publicity about arrests and the continuing police activity the numbers would start to go into a gentle if not vertiginous decline. Not a bit of it. The problem is obviously very deep-seated.
2010 is the latest year for which numbers are available. At a total of 1,781 convictions and cautions 2010 turned out to be a record breaking year.
The number shakes down as follows: convictions or cautions for “simple” possession of indecent images of children 380; making or taking them 1,401. The only other year the total went above 1,700 was in 2003 when it reached 1,731. 2003 was when the police and prosecutors were at their busiest working on Operation Ore, the offspring of Operation Avalanche in the USA.
If you want me to send you a copy of the Ministry of Justice spreadsheet showing the figures just ask me via a comment on this blog. I got the full set going back to 2000.
The nature of the beast
I imagine most of the people who read this piece will know that the images we are discussing typically depict unspeakable acts being perpetrated against some of the weakest members of society. According to the Annual Report of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in 2010 73% of all the child abuse images they dealt with involved children under the age of 10. 65% showed sexual activity between adults and children.
Is the material the IWF sees likely to be the same as or very similar to that which the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) see? Obviously the IWF sends the police and hence also CPS everything they classify as illegal but the IWF deals more or less exclusively with the web and Newsgroups. The police additionally also engage with Peer2Peer and other online environments. I cannot think why there might be any significant divergence in the nature of the material coming from these different sources but until this is properly researched I guess we have to allow there could be.
Operation Ore is ancient history
After the “Ore peak” in 2003 the total number of convictions and cautions started to fall back, eventually bumping along in the 1,200s. Then in 2008 convictions and cautions begin to rise again. How do we explain this?
Is it likely that engagement with child abuse images grew as broadband access in the UK became more or less universal? Are we just getting better at catching people? Both could be true.
Part of the explanation for the “catching people” bit must be linked to the creation of CEOP in April, 2006. As CEOP started getting into its stride so CEOP staff have been able to take the information provided to them by the IWF and other sources, investigate it more rapidly and expertly, passing on more intelligence packages to local forces who then go out and make the arrests.
More police forces active
Of at least equal importance in terms of explaining the growth in convictions and cautions is the increased appetite for this type of work among a larger number of our local police forces. They have been establishing their own cyber-crime units, devoting resources to building up their expertise and capacity. You only ever used to hear about London’s Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. That’s not the case now.
CEOP’s international role
CEOP’s links to police forces in other parts of the world will also have played a part in registering that UK law enforcement agencies are up and running and ready for cyber business. This will have attracted more of it to them. Prior to CEOP arriving on the scene the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit and the National Crime Squad had all been active around the world, as indeed had the three local forces just mentioned, but the wider range of demands on their time meant they were not always able to sustain some parts of their online child protection work over the longer term. For CEOP this was and is core business.
Thus one very depressing inference is that the more police officers you throw at it the more suspects you will pick up. This eventually shows in the number of convictions and cautions. “Fish in a barrel syndrome” as it is sometimes called. Maybe this is true in other areas of crime as well but it’s not a very comfortable thought when we contemplate the offences being discussed here.
How big might the problem be?
The level of convictions and cautions almost certainly gives us only the vaguest of clues as to the true scale of offending. Is it possible to get any sort of handle on just how large the problem might be? Sadly probably not. It’s a known unknown, in that sense no different from any other type of crime. The perpetrators simply do not fill in annual returns.
The NSPCC’s latest prevalence study tells us one in nine young adults said they experienced some level of contact sexual abuse during childhood. The vast majority of this was never reported at the time or since. I am not suggesting for a minute that one in nine gives us a reliable insight into the likely scale of offending in the UK in relation to images of child sex abuse. There is quite a leap from abusing a child to abusing a child and taking pictures or videos of the abuse either to keep yourself or to pass on to other people. But there again one in nine hints at a scale which leaves no room for complacency.
More cautions than convictions for possession
The official figures that the Ministry of Justice released also reveal that the use of cautions is on the way up, at least for possession offences.
The total number of cautions administered followed roughly the same overall trajectory referred to earlier. Cautions for possession offences hit a high of 205 in 2003. In 2008 the numbers move up again reaching a new record high of 215 in 2010. Indeed in 2010, for the first time ever, the number of cautions given exceeded the number of convictions.
The ratio of cautions to convictions for possession has been high for several years, often not far off 50:50. I wonder if there is any other class or type of criminal behaviour where this sort of ratio is repeated? It certainly looks a little odd and needs some explaining. The guidelines of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are pretty clear:
…..a caution is unlikely to be a suitable method of disposal in cases where indecent images of children are found on the suspect’s computer.
Cases that may be appropriate for a caution…..are cases where indecent images of children are not found on the suspect’s computer, but the suspect admits to having previously accessed such sites to obtain indecent images of children.
Cautions are not a soft option but……
Now I fully accept that getting a caution is not a soft option: it means the person has admitted the offence. They are still put on the Sex Offenders Register and get everything that goes with that.
One explanation for the rise in cautions might be that more young people are being picked up as offenders, maybe as the result of foolish behaviour on social networking sites. Dragging them before the courts is unlikely to be in their best long term interests nor will it serve justice. The expeditious use of a caution may be the exactly the right answer in these and other carefully selected cases.
However, cautions undoubtedly save police time, forensic laboratory time, CPS time and court time. Time is money. Police officers might therefore rationalize the use of cautions by saying it allows them to get on with dealing with more serious cases. It will be seen as a judicious use of scarce resources in an area where demand far, far outstrips supply. But that could be simply another way of saying
We can’t afford to do the job we think needs doing
If that is the case we should acknowledge it and not pretend that what is happening is solely and wholly intended to improve the overall situation. It is a reaction to the straitened times we all live in.
Someone quite close to these issues thought that the high level of cautions might not only be a sign that the police are picking up more young people but they are also finding a lot more individuals who are engaged in downloading and possessing smaller quantities of lower level images, particularly Level 1 images. I’m not sure how issuing cautions for Level 1 possession offences squares with The Sentencing Advisory Council’s Guidelines but there you go.
We cannot just lightly trip by a development of this kind. We have to acknowledge, for example, that many people will feel angry about the use of cautions because they feel it denies the retributive element of a public trial. After all, by definition, most of the people convicted of these offences did not respect the right to privacy, or the right not to be publicly humiliated that was the lot of the children whose images they were collecting from the internet.
De facto change of policy
The earlier reference to Level 1 images is an important one. I understand the Sentencing Guidelines are under review at the moment. It is possible the status of Level 1 images is therefore about to change. But unless and until that happens people will be keen to know that they have not already been made the subject of a de facto demotion. It suggests possession of such images may already be en route to being no more than an annoying misdemeanour, or possibly to becoming no crime at all.
For some time there has been a feeling in the child protection community that too often people found in possession of Level 1 materials are thought to represent the least worrying type of offender. The assumption has been that only people found in possession of Level 4 or 5 images, the worst of the worst, pose any sort of potential future threat to children. They get any help that is going, which anyway is precious little. Level 1 people are, in effect, cast adrift to fend for themselves. Yet there is no evidence at all to support the idea that Level 1 offenders are less of a future threat to children than Level 4 or 5 offenders. The reality could be the diametric and exact opposite.
That said, internationally our Level 1 is regarded as being too strict or too high a standard. It does cause problems in terms of the smooth operation of various police systems that work at a transnational level. Thus I think everyone should be willing to discuss possible changes to the law or practice but if we are to go ahead and make them we need to know precisely why we are doing so.
Budgets alone do not a convincing case make!
Police officers frequently say they are having trouble coping with the volume of image-related offences. Phrases like
we cannot arrest our way out of this
reflect genuine anxieties within the law enforcement community.
Apart from changes to the law and policy, perhaps in relation to Level 1 images, should we also start looking for other new and radical alternative strategies?
Speaking of which there are persistent rumours that one or more police forces in England have started or are about to start writing letters to people whom they believe to have internet accounts which look as if they have been used to download child abuse images, typically from a Peer2Peer network. The letters might read something like this:
Dear Mr X,
It has come to our attention that an internet account which you appear to own or control has been used to download indecent images of children. Without further investigation we have no way of knowing if you personally were responsible for this criminal behaviour or if someone else who had access to your account at the time is the culprit. This letter therefore serves as notice that at some stage in the future we may well decide to call at your home or place of work either to arrest you on suspicion of having committed this offence, or to seize your computers, or both.
In the meantime should you have any evidence which would prove to us you were not involved in downloading any indecent images of children please forward it to me at your earliest convenience.
Chief Inspector K
At least one European police force is thought to have tried something like this already and it is said that the effect of the letter was instantaneous and dramatic. In the days following its despatch absolutely nobody went on to that Peer2Peer network in their country to engage in any kind of illegal downloading.
I can see arguments in both directions. Many will not like the idea of sending out letters like these as it will be, as they see it, an admission of defeat.
Shouldn’t we be arresting these people?
I hear them ask.
Facing up to realities
Yes we should be arresting them. But what do we do if we can’t? And we can’t because Governments around the world will not fund enough police officers, judges, probation officers and the rest, or build enough prisons to make such a course of action feasible or believable. I leave on one side the perhaps even greater challenge of funding enough sex offender treatment programmes and prevention and education initiatives designed to minimise the incidence of these crimes happening in the first place.
What might the immediate impact be of a warning letter of the kind I have described? What might happen in households in which one was to arrive, unannounced and out of the blue, so to speak? We know there is a raised risk of suicide among people accused of any sort of involvement with child abuse images. What if the person to whom the letter is addressed is a teacher or something similar? Or the person is a parent and there are children in the house?
On the other hand we owe it to the children depicted in the images to prevent or minimise any further circulation of pictures of their abuse. Moreover we know that these types of images also encourage or help to create or sustain paedophile activity or networks. Thus the longer they remain visible and available for download the greater is the chance they will be putting new children at risk who are as yet unharmed. A letter of the kind envisaged could therefore be just the thing to convince someone who has recently started looking at child abuse images that the best time to stop doing it is now. Consequently I am not sympathetic to an argument which says we will not countenance letters to persons suspected only of possession because we cannot afford to do everything, or because we are more concerned to save face.
Triage would be essential
I fully accept that prior to sending out such a letter, at the very least, there would have to be, repeat for emphasis, would have to be, some preliminary research carried out into the addressee’s circumstances. As with Operation Ore a triage exercise would be needed. Anyone identified within certain high risk categories should be arrested and only the remainder would get the letter. This would reassure the public of the police’s ability to deal with the most obvious or pressing threats to children.
But let’s not forget that even with Operation Ore the police never went to the homes of a substantial number of people whose names were on the list that the US authorities had handed them. Do we know what happened to the “unvisited”? Did any of them go on to commit offences, if so what kind of offences were they? If any of the “unvisited” had been sent a letter might it have had some effect? We’ll never know but we can speculate.
Closed minds should be left at the door
We should not be bulldozed or led to a new policy position by sleight of hand. There ought to be some sort of evidence base to support any changes and all the stakeholders should be engaged in the discussion, not just some. However, if in the end budgets truly are the only reason for altering policy or practice we should at least record that fact. When we revisit the topic as the economy improves perhaps we might then be spared having to jump through too many hoops merely to restore the status quo ante.
Good public policy making depends upon full disclosure and requires all participants to have equal access to all the relevant facts. Closed minds should be left at the door. And even if we reach no agreement the debate might anyway be useful. It will underscore several of the public safety messages which we constantly seek to put across to children and families about aspects of risk on the internet. Hushing everything up rarely helps in the longer run.
Furthermore one of the conclusions I believe such an open debate will lead us to is the realisation that, as with other areas of cyber-crime, we are increasingly going to have to look to the high tech industries and internet intermediaries to help civilized society protect itself from serious wrongdoers. And by one of life’s little coincidences today sees the announcement of a partnership between Microsoft and Swedish technology company Netclean. It is just the kind of thing I want to applaud.
The private sector has a crucial part to play
I have written before about Microsoft’s PhotoDNA and how it could be used to detect known child abuse images. Facebook tested and has now adopted the technology. It seems to be working brilliantly and on a very large scale. Microsoft’s partnership with Netclean means we can foresee a time when data on illegal images is going to find its way to law enforcement even more rapidly and efficiently than before.
Developments such as the Microsoft-Netclean partnership feed my great sense of optimism. I remain convinced that we will, in the end, substantially defeat the scourge of online child abuse images. But hang on to your hats as there are almost certainly several bumps in the road ahead. These are bumps we should navigate cautiously so as to avoid completely or at any rate minimise the risk of any damage being done to anyone’s legitimate free speech rights and the body politic generally. But what is completely unacceptable is any notion that we refuse to attempt the journey at all. The internet reminds us of the limits of what states can do. But it also reminds everybody of what the rest of us must.