An opportunity grows out of a crisis

There is no need  for me to recite here the litany of events which led to the establishment of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse  (IICSA). These have been painfully and painstakingly documented elsewhere. Suffice to say it would be difficult to exaggerate the enormity or  significance of the task  now facing the Inquiry.

The auguries seem set fair. The Honourable Lowell Goddard, who heads the Inquiry, comes with a weighty reputation and she appears to have been given the appropriate legal powers, time and budget. A formidably talented team is being assembled to help her with the work.

It would be ridiculous and offensive to try to rank the different elements of the Inquiry’s remit by order of importance. Each one is vital, not only in its own right but also as part of a larger mosaic which created the conditions that allowed the awful things we now know about to  happen in the first place to so many of our children and, just as importantly, also allowed them to go unresolved for so long.

Having said it would be ridiculous and offensive to distinguish between the component parts  of the Inquiry one would nevertheless have to have a heart of stone not to recognise the centrality of creating space for previously “unlistened to” victims to present their experience to people avowedly willing to hear.

Returning to the title of this blog though, where is the “opportunity” which emerges from the crisis the Inquiry seeks to resolve? In fact there are several opportunities but in what follows I want to focus on just one of them. The research element and its relevance to the online child protection agenda.  Through it IICSA has the chance to do a great service not only for children living in the UK, but for children in all parts of the world.

The pillars of the Inquiry

The IICSA web site states the Inquiry’s three guiding principles. There is to be a

Truth Project

The Truth Project will allow victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to share their experiences with the Inquiry.

Public Hearings Project

The Public Hearings Project will resemble a conventional public inquiry, where witnesses give evidence on oath and are subject to cross examination.

Research Project

…the Research Project will involve a comprehensive literature review to bring together, for the first time, analysis of all the published work addressing institutional failures in child protection.

Important though such an aim is, the next sentence greatly excites me. IICSA says

We will …commission sector specific research to better understand the scale of the problem and to identify recommendations for change.

So what don’t we know?

In relation to the online world the answer is “quite a lot”.

I am not going to attempt to cover all the terra incognita this instant but below are a few of the more obvious matters.

In no particular order:

Thanks to  the HMIC’s excellent  report “In Harm’s Way” we are much better informed  about how law enforcement is  failing to meet  the challenges presented by the scale of offending against children where the internet plays a key part in the identified behaviour.

It was beyond the scope of the Inspection to devise a detailed or at any rate a complete prescription for remedying every aspect of the mournful scenario which it described. Perhaps the research wing of IICSA could take that agenda further forward? I am certain IICSA will find many willing helpers, particularly within parts of the industry.

Child abuse materials

Child abuse images and videos typically are evidence of a serious crime having been committed against a child. In addition their publication and continued circulation on the internet  represents a  further and significant assault on the depicted child’s right to privacy and human dignity. This compounds and extends the original offence thereby adding to and probably worsening the initial injury.

This situation cries out for justice and part of that will depend on the ability of law enforcement to locate the child in real life and affect a rescue and removal to a place of greater safety, linked to the provision of tailored counselling or other forms of help.

Victim identification

Starting with the images themselves are we satisfied with the proportion of victims being identified and located?  Are there any removable obstacles to locating more? Does the level of therapeutic or other support services available to victims meet the level of need? If there is a gap, how large is it?

The children’s workforce

Do all parts of the children’s workforce feel they are adequately equipped and trained to work in the the digital context that is such a major part of practically every child’s life in 21st Century Britain?

Reassuring victims that effective action is being taken

Where a child has been sexually abused and imges of the abuse have appeared online their path to recovery may well also depend on  the authorities or counsellors being able to reassure them that effective efforts are being made to achieve the rapid deletion of the abusive  images or videos in question from every known originating source or server and, pending that, that restrictions have been put in place which will reduce the availability of the said materials to new viewers or collectors.

IICSA might take a view as to whether these latter arrangements are working well enough. The consensus is that they are.

Viewers and collectors

What about the individuals who help sustain or encourage the production of child abuse  materials by downloading, exchanging or collecting them?

We have been told repeatedly that the numbers of people involved in that type of activity greatly exceeds the processing capacity of our law enforcement and justice systems.  Yet at the same time it is conceded that each such individual could represent a current or future threat to children, meaning not only that they may continue to collect and possess child abuse images but, perhaps more urgently, they might already be engaged in contact offending or are likely to become so. Alternatively have they offended against children in the past but the abuse has not yet been disclosed or detected?

How good are we at identifying actual or potential contact offenders from the data – digital and otherwise – obtained via police actions or from internet platforms ?

Big data techniques?

It now almost qualifies as a platitude to say

…..there are no identifiable personality traits or  demographic characteristics which would allow for the easy or rapid identification of ‘dangerous individuals’  from the  mass of undifferentiated  data which, typically, is what law enforcement is confronted with, particularly in the immediate aftermath of large scale police operations against paedophile rings or following arrests connected with child abuse image related offences.

However, the truth is most of the academically robust studies on which the near-platitudinous statement is based have been quite small scale.  The methodologies may have been sound  but, precisely because of their limited sample size, few experts are fully convinced any of them represent the last or definitive word. That needs to change.

Have our new Masters of the Universe – the algorithmic alchemists – ever been given free rein to analyse or have at the relevant data mountains? Am I simply hoping against hope here? Indulging a pipedream? If GCHQ/National Crime Agency have not already done it maybe Google could be prevailed upon to help out in one way or another? I for one would be reassured to know such a route had at least been tried.

More traditional ways?

Not wanting to put all one’s eggs in the algorithms basket might there also be a possibility for IICSA to commission more conventional or traditional types of research in this field, only on a large enough scale to settle (once and for all?) whether or not there is a robust method for the police to identify  and separate out the more dangerous individuals from the less so?

I know the police themselves and probably everyone in the child protection world would rather we were able “simply” to arrest or individually appraise every single suspect who showed up on the radar but this is not going to happen. That being the case  what else can we do to help law enforcement develop sound, rational techniques for prioritising within their crushing workloads?

Macro v micro

Is it really  the case, as many police officers strongly believe, that the emergence of cyberspace has led to a net increase in child sex abuse abuse?

There is no doubt it has led to a gigantic increase in the availability of child abuse images but how does that translate in terms of the quantum of abuse now occurring? Intuitively one might imagine that there was a relationship but it has yet to be convincingly proved.

Some surveys say on the whole children in the global North are healthier and happier than they have ever been but might it nevertheless still be the case that while the overall level of sex abuse may have remained static or even declined there has been  a substantial degree of  displacement or redistribution within or between different categories? Could there even be elements of growth which are detectable at the micro level e.g. by serving police officers, while remaining hidden from view at the macro?

The absence of reliable baseline data might make it impossible ever to reach an uncontested answer to questions of this sort but the search for a better understanding of the dynamics of the processes at play may be illuminating in any number of ways. Yet as long as there is any child sex abuse going on, civilized society and civilized people cannot ignore it, whether it is trending upwards or downwards.

The least propitious moment?

In the unfolding aftermath of Snowden, as more and more technology companies seek to distance themselves from any voluntary or not legally required entanglement with arms of the state, is this the least propitious moment to say that in any reasonably foreseeable future we are going to have to find more and better ways to bring Silicon Valley and its satellites and acolytes into a greater acceptance of the inevitability of them becoming more involved with ensuring the internet is a safer place for children?

Even if we were living in times of super abundance, as opposed to times of austerity, I just cannot see how the historic methods used by the state to secure compliance with the criminal law will ever be able to measure up to the volumes of offending which, for all its wonderfulness in other areas, the internet has facilitated.  The alternative is that we somehow learn to live with, accept or accommodate a number of dismal conclusions. I just do not see that happening.

While we are about it

Could IICSA succeed where the NSPCC failed? When the NSPCC last asked the 43 police forces in England and Wales how many child abuse images they had seized in the previous two years only five replied. What’s going on with the other 38?

How many arrests and convictions have there been both for image related offences and other illegal behaviours involving children which are linked to the online environment e.g. grooming?

How constrained do judges feel at sentencing based on their knowledge of the availability of prison places or sex offender treatment programmes? Is the new classification system for images helping clarify what the possession of different types or volumes of images might or might not signify?

Has there been a growth in the use of cautions for online offences and, if there has, are we convinced this is justified on its own terms and that it is not merely a pragmatic or tactial response to an otherwise unmanageable caseload?

Are we entirely satisfied with the data collection and recording processes now in place where the police investigate any suspected criminal activity involving a child where the internet played a significant part? Do we therefore have a good enough  picture of the full spectrum of online activity in terms of hazards to children?

Where child sex abuse material has been found in the unlawful possession of a third party is there anything to be said for developing a new right for any child depicted to obtain compensation from that person, along the lines of the decision in Amy v Paroline in the US Supreme Court?

The truth about social networking sites

I know of  few commercial concerns that willingly, never mind  voluntarily, disclose data about their internal operations, particularly if they touch or concern certain aspects of their business. That type of information might be considered to be price sensitive and therefore be governed by Stock Exchange rules and the like, so unless you have an obligation to publish likely you won’t. But perhaps there is a larger public interest at stake?

For example: on a typical or average day do we know how many paedophiles are active on some of the major social networking sites, as evidenced by, for example, the volume of reports of grooming received and investigated by agencies such as CEOP or other police forces?  What counter measures are being deployed by the best and the worst social networking sites to limit grooming and  other forms of illegal behaviour? Do they work well enough to reassure parents and the public that everything that could reasonably be expected is in fact in place and working to an acceptable standard? Is there room for improvement? Can and should best practice be translated into mandatory practice, if so how and by whom?

What about reports made by children of abusive or other forms of  troubling behaviour, including bullying? How efficiently and speedily are such reports investigated and resolved by the company receiving them? Is there a satisfactory feedback loop to complainants and does it work well enough to encourage a feeling that it is worthwhile continuing to make reports  if the situation requires it?

The efficacy of self regulation

Inevitably enquiries like these will raise issues about the efficacy of the UK’s historic approach to online child protection. Has self-regulation had its day?  Has all the low-hanging fruit been picked? Is it time to move on?

Improved digital literacy and outreach to parents

Unavoidably IICSA is going to focus on a range of issues which quite naturally fall primarily to be considered under a child protection heading or deal with law enforcement preoccupations. Particular attention may need to be given to the position of vulnerable children but it will be important for each of these strands to be located in a wider context.

Are the different initiatives aimed at developing children’s resilience and improving their digital literacy working well enough to protect them from harm or the risk of harm when they go online? Are parents being helped enough so they can act as a first and principal bulwark in respect of  their children’s online concerns?

Leaving aside the efforts made by individual companies in respect of their own users, are the wider  mechanisms available to children to report abuse or seek different kinds of help working well enough?

Need for changes in the law or procedures?

Are there any legal, procedural or evidential  obstacles to improving police performance  in this area?  I suspect many senior police officers could produce a useful list in short order. Perhaps  IICSA could  look into these and any others they identify themselves and  set them out in a document which is published. I am thinking, among other things, about the rules governing the collection, analysis and presentation of data about the often gigantic volumes of child abuse images found on a suspect’s digital devices and about the practical and legal difficulties associated with exchanging data with or accepting data from foreign law enforcement agencies or sources.

In the end, given the global nature of the internet, in the context of law enforcement activity a great deal is always going to depend upon securing improved international  co-operation between law enforcement agencies, organizations and companies domiciled outside the UK but without a publicly known, widely accepted, clearly stated set of objectives the fear must be that little progress will be made because the necessary head of political steam will fail to materialise as everything gets lost in a miasma of vague sound bites about the importance of (never achieved ) harmonization. Meanwhile police officers are simply left to cope as best they can with a still escalating level of demand.

Are we satisfied with the speed of the evolution of the law enforcement environment at an international level both in relation to dealing with child abuse materials and more generally? For example could  more be made of the Virtual Global Taskforce and if the answer is in the affirmative is there anything the UK Government or UK law enforcement can do to speed up that process or help it along, for example within the framework of the #We Protect initiative?

Are the different components of what might loosely be called the international internet governance community doing the best they can to ensure  children’s online experiences are as safe as they can be? In particular is ICANN’s wilful blindness to the wider consequences of its decisions any longer acceptable? Has the huge power of the Registrars and Registries within ICANN ‘s machinery simply turned it into a self-serving money-making machine that prays in aid its essential technical functions as a smokescreen designed to divert attention from the  commercial purposes that lie at its real core? Do we need the UK Government to become more energetically engaged in steering ICANN towards a better and acceptable path?

The dark net?

Could an independent body such as IICSA shed at least some light on the scale and nature of the challenges posed by the dark net? The problem otherwise is if the Government, security services or law enforcement agencies speak on this subject a substantial part of what they say will immediately be discounted for obvious reasons. With appropriate specialist advice IICSA may be able to move the discussion on even if it cannot find an answer. On a related theme how is the rise of encryption impacting on current investigations and what is the prognosis should current trends continue?

The rule of law

Very few people do not support the ideas which underpin the rule of law but here’s the thing. The rule of law carries with it the implication that the law can, in fact, be enforced. However if, through human ingenuity and an ever more urgent search for online privacy we have in fact created systems which, for practical purposes,  make it impossible for the law to be enforced where does that leave us?