A big step forward


Last month the UK Government organized a conference under the banner of “We Protect children online”.   Some of the decisions taken  or announced at  it promise to deliver a step change in the global fight against several different types of child abuse.

The formally agreed outcomes were contained in a series of published statements but presumably a full report of the whole event will eventually be made available. Let’s hope so because there was a great deal of rich detail in many of the presentations. However, in the meantime, from my perspective there were several major elements which provide the foundation for my optimism about what  is going to happen next.

High level engagement  

Over 50 national governments from all corners of the planet were represented by Ministers or top level officials.  23 leading technology companies sent senior people.

Law enforcement was there in strength. The Philippines was not alone in including operational police officers as part of their delegation. They were able to speak eloquently and with great feeling about a number of the horrendous cases they have had to deal with involving the live streaming of child sex abuse.  Such grass roots  voices were complemented by global  big hitters from the likes of INTERPOL, the UNODC , the US Department of Justice and our own National Crime Agency (NCA), where CEOP is now a separate Command.

Nine NGOs or international NGOs attended the conference. Several were given speaking slots to talk about their current work and their hopes and vision for the future.

UNICEF and a Global Fund

One of the most dramatic, radical and promising announcements concerned  UNICEF.  British Prime Minister Cameron revealed his Government had proposed that a Global Fund be established to help in the fight against child abuse. He went on to say UNICEF had been asked to administer it. The UK started the money ball rolling with a donation of £50 million over five years.

In recent years UNICEF has become fully engaged with cyberspace both as a source of tremendous opportunities for children and young people but also as a place of dangers which must be addressed. Thus, while the Fund’s terms of reference  have yet to be finalised it seems clear it will support a broad range of child welfare programmes and research not just ones concerned with online child protection.

As if to underline this point, speaking at the conference Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening MP, announced that the UK Government’s first £10 million was coming out of her Departmental budget. That said, given the genesis of the conference it would be surprising if online child protection issues did not figure large and early in the work  that is supported by the Fund.

Seemingly there is an intention to extend the Fund beyond £50 million by seeking donations from other Governments and organizations. Let’s hope that works. In the small bit of the universe  I occupy £50 million is a mind-boggling sum. If it gets any larger I may blow a gasket.

High Tech companies roll up their sleeves

Last year Google announced a series of changes to prevent images, videos and peer-to-peer links to child abuse material from appearing in connection with more than 100,000 unique searches associated with child sexual abuse terms. At the conference a Google spokesperson was able to tell us that this has now been implemented in all 40 languages in which the company operates.

Google also launched a deterrent campaign to show warning messages both from themselves and from child safety organisations for more than 13,000 unique search terms.

Since making these adjustments  Google said it had observed a 20% drop in the number of attempts being made to locate paedophilic or child abuse content through their search engine.

In respect of Bing, Microsoft’s lexicon of paedophilic  search terms is being extended – according to one source by “tens of thousands” of words or expressions, none of which will return any child abuse results at all. When people do search for such things they will instead be confronted with pages warning them off, telling them they’re breaking the law.

Google also announced that it had struck up a partnership with Yahoo to develop and test a video equivalent of Microsoft’s PhotoDNA. This would facilitate the creation of  a database of hashes of video content, making it easier for child abuse videos to be identified and either deleted more swiftly or prevented from being uploaded in the first place. In addition and crucially the  new database will also  help save a great deal of police time by eliminating wasteful duplication of investigative effort.

Microsoft, Google and Mozilla (owners of Firefox) announced their intention to work together to see what can be done at the level of the browser to restrict the use of torrent URLs as pathways to child abuse images.

Beyond that, an industry based “We Protect” working group is continuing to meet to develop a range of online child protection ideas that, prior to the conference, they have been considering either collectively or as individual companies.

 The Spooks  and cops get together

The Prime Minister has spoken before about how the UK’s major electronic surveillance agency, GCHQ could contribute its skills and knowledge to the fight against online child abuse. At the conference he went a step further by announcing the creation of new joint unit consisting of GCHQ and the NCA. It will be particularly targeting paedophiles  operating on the Darknet.

An extra £10 million was also promised to the NCA for next year to create further specialist online child sexual abuse teams focusing on the worst offenders.

There was news on progress with the creation within the UK of a single secure database of child abuse images – the Child Abuse Image Database (CAID). This has the potential to help UK law enforcement improve and speed up their investigations into online crimes against children.

Ultimately the aim is for CAID to be linked to or synchronised with the global images database that INTERPOL is working on. Moreover all this is against a background of 41 nations attending the conference agreeing to create their own national images databases which, presumably, as with the UK, will be INTERPOL-linked and compatible. Really important stuff.

New laws for the UK

Early last year the Government announced its intention to outlaw the possession of paedophile manuals – disgusting documents which provide like minded individuals with information about how to locate and sexually abuse children while minimizing the risk of being caught and prosecuted. At the conference the Prime Minister reminded us that the necessary provisions to  achieve this had been included in clause 66 of the Serious Crime Bill currently before Parliament.  Mr Cameron also disclosed that the Government was now proposing to insert additional clauses to the same Bill  because, as he put it

We’ve seen an increasing and alarming phenomenon of paedophiles contacting children online over the internet or on their mobile phone. ….there can be no grey areas here. If you ask a child to take their clothes off and send you a picture, you are as guilty as if you did that in person. So we’re going to change the law. This will make clear this type of behaviour is a crime…..

The IWF reports

Historically the IWF was theoretically in the rather peculiar position of having to wait for a member of the public to make a report to them before they could investigate to determine whether or not a given image was illegal and then, if it was, start the process of getting it deleted or put on a block list.  In April, 2014, the IWF acquired new powers to begin proactively looking for child abuse material on the internet.  At the conference the IWF announced  that since April

The total number of  URLs assessed as child sexual abuse and actioned for removal is 27,850. This is an increase of 109% on the previous year, and that was then with a month still to run before the year ended.

By taking this one “simple” step the IWF  reminds us that the  traditional approach of many hotlines is just not up to the needs of the moment. 

Monitoring progress

Maybe this is something that will emerge under the umbrella of the new fund UNICEF is administering but one way or the other it is important that a mechanism is established which will allow all of us to monitor the concrete achievements of the London conference, either on its own or perhaps better still by also tying up with the associated activities of the Global Alliance. The UK is a strong supporter of and participant in the Global Alliance so that would make sense.

In that connection it was very encouraging to hear that the United Arab Emirates has already made a bid to hold a follow up conference in roughly 12 months time. Were that to be agreed everyone would be on notice that our collective and individual efforts would be up for  further public discussion and evaluation. All of the companies I spoke to seemed perfectly relaxed  about such an idea. They are used to it now- and if they are  relaxed then everyone else should be too.

 A new global imperative

In her speech at the conference, Dorothy Rozga, Executive Director of ECPAT International, inter alia, made a plea for more and better data about how the world is faring in the fight against online child sexual abuse.

Arguing that what gets measured gets done Rozga pinpointed a singular set of numbers which are either already available but not published, or could be got together with a modicum of effort.

INTERPOL and other police agencies have databases containing huge quantities of child abuse images.

Information about the overall volumes of images being circulated online either globally or within specific countries tells you something but not necessarily very much.

What probably matters a lot more is to know how many individual children are being depicted within the images which have been seized by or are in the possession of  law enforcement agencies.

In other words we are asking to be told the total numbers of children who have been sexually abused in such a way that the abuse led to a video or still image of it appearing online. Of course this will not tell us about the sum total of all sexual abuse being perpetrated against children but it will give us a handle on an important aspect of it.

Of the individually identified children, how many children have been located in real life, at least in terms of determining the jurisdiction where the abuse took place or, if it is different, the current location of the child?  Of these identified children how many have been fortunate enough to be traced and contacted by an appropriate law enforcement or child welfare agency?

Now we all know that a large proportion of online child abuse images circulating on the internet today were created many years ago – as far back as the 1960s. Equally we know that some countries are going to be far better placed than others to act in this space so it may be that, unless handled with care, publication of these sorts of data could stimulate unfair criticism of some police forces and governments but as Rozga argued, while few indicators are ever completely perfect one thing is for sure: the absence of them poses a much greater threat. An overriding concern here must be to shine a bigger and better light on the problem so that the public, politicians and policy makers are better informed.

Precisely for that reason Rozga put the case for publishing the fullest possible data set but acknowledged that what may matter more is seeing how, going forward, the numbers change over time.

If the number of children appearing for the first time in new child abuse images continues to grow then we  may all need to look again at  the preventative work we are doing although in reality, in the early years, as such a new indicator gains in international recognition and acceptance, as awareness of it grows, the chances are more cases will  start to be reported and recorded without there  necessarily having been any increase in instances of abuse. Improved reporting does not mean there is more offending. This is a familiar problem that statisticians have to grapple with in many areas of research. It is not a reason for refusing to collect and publish the data.

The number of children being seen for the first time in images but remaining unidentified and uncontacted  by police or child protection agencies will be a potent indicator. Over the years if the number continues to move up it should trigger action and the rate of growth or change in the number will give us a steer in relation to the scale of the action or response needed.

If the child protection community – indeed if the general public, the voters, do not have reliable information about how well or otherwise we are doing in trying to combat these horrific crimes against children we are all being deprived of a vital tool which ought to be shaping key policy decisions. Elsewhere that would be called a “democratic deficit”. When it comes to the protection of children it is completely unacceptable.