Child sex abuse images matter

Child sex abuse images which have been posted on the internet are important in and of themselves.  We do not need to justify taking action against them on any grounds other than the fact that they exist. Let’s remind ourselves why.

Every act of sexual abuse involving a child will harm that child. My unprovable hunch is in the vast majority of cases where a child is sexually abused there will be no recording or broadcasting device of any kind in the vicinity.  The emergence of live streaming and the growing levels of apparently self-produced images may change the arithmetic but this is not yet showing at scale.

Moreover, it is important to note that, at the moment, most of the child sex abuse we know about which does result in an image being produced and distributed seems to draw on the experience of countries where European languages are widely spoken. Could things be significantly different in countries or regions where European languages are not commonly used?

Such considerations notwithstanding, if an image of a child being sexually abused is created then distributed over the internet, potentially to be viewed by everyone in the world, unquestionably that adds to, changes and expands the harm done to the child, perhaps with catastrophic consequences. The crushing sense of loss of one’s human dignity can be severe, even overwhelming. The constant, nagging fear your classmates or people from your neighbourhood may already have seen the picture or might see it in the near future can be deeply corrosive of a young person’s self-confidence and self-esteem. And that’s on top of the damage done by being sexually abused in the first place.

Thus, every picture of a child being sexually abused is a picture of a child who needs help.

No false choices

The overriding aim, over and above all other considerations, has to be to find the child and provide whatever help is needed as quickly as possible. Part of that help is likely to involve therapeutic and counselling or medical support, the duration and nature of which will vary from case to case.

Locating and addressing the perpetrators of the abuse, including people seemingly involved “only” in downloading images is also vital, as is speedily removing or restricting access to the images themselves. However, each of these is a discrete component within an overall approach.  We do not have to choose between them. They are  not alternatives. They do not normally need to proceed sequentially. They can and typically should be carried out simultaneously in parallel.

About the images – a view from North  America

James Marsh is probably the USA’s leading lawyer when it comes to representing victims of child sex abuse where an image of the abuse has appeared online. He represented Amy in Amy v Paroline. It went all the way up to the US Supreme Court. Marsh is quite clear. Victims want every copy or version of an image of their humiliation to be found and deleted as quickly as possible. Pending that, they want access to be restricted to the greatest extent achievable, again as quickly as possible. Knowing this is being done can be crucial to a victim’s prospects of recovery and getting back to any kind of normal life. It provides reassuring evidence that the harm done to them is acknowledged, that every practical step is being taken to mitigate or limit the harm, to make things as right as they can be, that justice is being delivered.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has been working with a group of survivors who have banded together as the “Phoenix 11″. They issued a uniquely powerful statement giving voice to their determination not to be passive victims. On the contrary they are using the horror of  their personal experiences to demand action by every actor in the technology chain.

Technology can help

Once an image has been confirmed as containing child abuse material, finding, deleting or restricting online access to it can now be achieved largely by technical measures. Inter alia, the use of proactive searching technology based on hashes is revolutionizing the space. As previously stated, even if this was all we did it would be worth doing, not only because of our obligations to the victims depicted in the images but also because of our obligations to children as yet unharmed. The continued availability of child sex abuse material online encourages or helps sustain paedophile activity and this puts children at risk everywhere.

Identifying the victims and getting them the necessary help

Earlier it was observed every picture of a child being sexually abused is a picture of a child who needs help and finding the child must be the top priority.  When it comes to identifying and locating victims law enforcement has to be in the lead. Here’s where we need to be aware of two sorts of pictures held by the police.

Distributed and undistributed images

A great many child sex abuse images that find their way into the hands of law enforcement have never been distributed over the internet.   In a report shortly to be published by NCMEC  they will say only 11% of all the images in their database have been “actively traded” (which for them means found or reported on at least five occasions). Often, maybe usually, such images have been picked up in the course of another operation where a suspect’s digital media are seized and interrogated.

Because we know a high proportion of child sex abusers are closely linked to the victim, in such circumstances it can be a relatively easy matter for both victim and perpetrator to be found in a single action.

Nevertheless, because a child sex abuse image has been created there is no way of knowing if, in fact, it is already out on the internet and simply hasn’t been reported to a hotline or the police yet. It might appear on the internet in the future. For those reasons, the image has to be retained in police databases otherwise, if it is eventually found somewhere online,  police resources in several different countries could be wasted trying to find a child or a perpetrator in a case that has long been fully resolved and closed.

Of the child sex abuse images that do find their way on to the internet, many can be and are extensively copied and distributed on a gigantic scale on a global basis.  These are the images victims, police, parents, the public and governments think about most and worry about most. They are also a major focus of child rights advocates who work in this area. Children in distributed images are likely in the greatest danger.

So how good are we at finding unidentified children?

Where an image has been found on the internet and is reported to, say, a hotline or directly to the police, in the first instance the child will  normally be an unidentified victim. How efficiently are law enforcement able to convert an unidentified victim into an  identified child? For these purposes “how efficiently” really means “how quickly”.  This is an acid-test.

There are other things we would like to know, for example, about the availability of resources to help identified children recover from the abuse they have suffered, but how quickly sexually abused children in images are being found by the police is an important point of departure.

Looking at the facts

INTERPOL owns and administers the International Child Sexual Exploitation image database (ICSE). INTERPOL’s leadership acknowledged the importance of analysing  whatever data were in ICSE with a view to improving our collective understanding of how effective their work is in this area.

EU funded research project

With funding provided by the European Union  INTERPOL therefore agreed to be party to a proposal put forward by ECPAT International. I was on the Technical Working Group which helped supervise the work. The report came out earlier this week.

Entitled “On Unidentified Victims in Child Sexual Exploitation Material – towards a global indicator” it looked at images within and the processes associated with ICSE. Law enforcement agencies in 53 countries can connect to ICSE. Given that INTERPOL has 192 nations in membership this is surprising and disappointingly low, however ICSE contains images known to be from 88 jurisdictions.

As the title implies the EU funded project was trying to establish if the world could determine, on an on-going basis, how successfully law enforcement was able to move children from the unidentified to the identified category.

Creating an index

Having analysed the factors which determine what it takes to find a child when all there is at the beginning of the investigative process is the image itself and the available meta data associated with it, ECPAT International’s core idea was to construct a baseline index of some sort. It would be set at, say, 100. If next year the index stood at 110 we would know that the numbers of children remaining in the unidentified category were going up. This would trigger further enquiries to see how we might at least get back to 100. However, the overarching aim would always be to reduce the index to nil or as close to it as we can get. We want to live in a world with zero child sex abuse of any kind and as we move towards that we definitely want to live in a world with zero child sex abuse material on the internet.

Tracking changes and looking into causes

At the same time it was also hoped we would get an insight both as to the total number of unique images in circulation or being produced and the numbers of children who are being victimised in those images.  Was the number of new victims in images going up or down? Would this tells us anything about the nature or amount of child sex abuse taking place in society as a whole? For the reasons given earlier, probably not. We are going to have to continue to rely on prevalence studies for that.

However, if more previously unseen children were starting to appear in images we would need to find out why. Were previously unknown technologies being used? Is that what lies behind the growth? If the number of new children being seen was falling is someone doing something right somewhere? If so, let’s learn from that and copy or adapt it.

Data from ICSE

ICSE yielded a great deal of interesting and extremely useful data about the sub set of child sex abuse victims who appear in distributed and undistributed images that find their way into the hands of the police. It is not necessary to rehearse all the findings here. They are well set out in the report, but as the study got underway a number of things quickly became apparent.

ICSE was not built with the needs of researchers in mind

ICSE was established as a collaborative, international investigative tool. The designers did not have the needs of researchers in mind when they were building it. They were thinking entirely about operational police officers intent on finding a child. ICSE’s ability to generate the kind of analytical data that would be needed to construct a global indicator is therefore limited although the system is currently undergoing an upgrade and the new version will be better in that respect.

The second, and in retrospect rather obvious point, is that while ICSE is uniquely important because of its singular role as a connecting point for every police force in the world, ICSE is not the only child sex abuse image database and it is not even the largest.

EUROPOL, the UK, the USA and others also have image databases or are building one. Part of the broader mission has to be to ensure all of the databases can connect with each other so no child falls through the cracks. This implies a common set of criteria will need to be developed to ensure everyone’s on the same page in terms of how and what data are entered and exchanged. Alternatively a method must be agreed to standardise the data. Not a small thing to do.

INTERPOL was able to tell us they had identified 12,000 children who were in images in ICSE but, as the final report indicates, they were unable to say with a high enough degree of certainty what percentage this represented of all children in there.

Neither was it possible to work out what a “typical journey”  from unidentified to identified looked like, including how long it would be likely to take. Some children might be identified within  days or weeks of an image being entered into ICSE. Others will have been unidentified in the database for years.

What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done

Even if it is not always literally true, it is substantially true that what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done. If we, as child rights advocates want to stand alongside colleagues in law enforcement, or independently agitate for them to be given more resources to find more children quicker, we need to be able to do more than give voice to righteous rage.  We need numbers. We need a global indicator. And we need it now.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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