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October 2020
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Police swamped by child sex abuse images say experts

Despite advances in IT technology and millions of pounds spent every year on fighting child sex abuse images online, some experts say police forces in the UK and worldwide are now “swamped” by the sheer scale of the problem.

GPSJ (Government & Public Sector Journal) has been told by industry sources that there appears to be a real lack of commitment from within government to force ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) and website owners to do more to block the increasing amounts of child abuse images passing through their servers.

Experts say there are a lot of “meetings” and a lot of “talks” taking place with very little actually being achieved, this has resulting in “cracks” forming within the current strategies employed to reduce child sex abuse images online.

Some UK law enforcement agencies do not have the remit to investigate certain areas of the internet and this is leading to a situation where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Experts say there should now be one overall law enforcement agency taking charge rather than the various separate agencies all working to different agendas.

With these cracks developing in the strategy it appears some ISP’s and websites are using this to their advantage with some turning a blind eye to any legal or moral responsibilities they have in removing child sex abuse content. Even when notified about illegal content they are still taking too long to block and remove it.

It is claimed some websites are failing to take action to prevent and remove illegal material, simple steps like blocking common search words used by paedophiles when seeking illegal content are not being implemented.

Whilst law enforcement agencies are wholly correct to investigate people downloading and distributing child sex abuse images online, it is also a disturbing fact that some sites are advertising and promoting illegal material on a regular basis. Seemingly free from any prosecution or regulation by the authorities.

Insiders say there should be a “duty in law” placed on internet service providers and site owners to take all reasonable steps necessary to remove and prevent links to abusive images of children – the technology already exists to do this.

One way illegal images are accessed and distributed is through torrents, these are a popular way for people to share files over the internet – by simply installing a piece of software known as a client onto a computer – users can then search for various files.

A torrent itself does not contain the actual files, it only contains information about the files, such as their names, sizes, folder structure, and hash values for integrity.

GPSJ surveyed the most popular torrent sites to see which, if any, blocked two keywords commonly used by paedophiles when searching for illegal images.

The ten most popular sites were compiled using the latest survey information provided by TorrentFreak, a weblog dedicated to news and stories about the Torrent protocol.

We discovered that two out of the top ten torrent sites surveyed advertised links to child sex abuse content when searched using two keywords commonly used by paedophiles. Even general searches for music and films sometimes resulted in links to child sex abuse content.

The link descriptions contained sickening references to the age of the child being abused, and the type of abuse being committed. Terms such as “baby-rape” and “toddler-rape” were common place.

These graphic descriptions left nothing to the imagination and would disgust most normal people.

CEOP (The Child Exploitation and Online Protection) agency initially told us the advertising of child abuse links “was not illegal”.

When we asked them if it was illegal for a website to be advertising child abuse links, CEOP said: “The sites are not illegal so there is no basis in law for stopping them trading.

“Whilst it is questionable ethically, it is not currently illegal to host a P2P link to a torrent containing indecent imagery. Importantly, these sites do not actually host the illegal material.”

We thought this if true was remarkable, especially after the recent Jimmy Savile scandal and a heightened awareness of child sex abuse in general.

John Carr, a government advisor on child protection and the former head of the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) told GPSJ: “I don’t know who you spoke to at CEOP or how you put the question to them but there is simply no doubt that it is a crime to advertise the existence of child sex abuse images.

“If the link informs someone that this particular link will lead them to indecent images that is an advert. ‘Inform’ means the same as ‘advertise’.

“What else could it mean? We had to deal with this many years ago when I was on the board of the IWF.

“Why would someone post or provide a link if they did not intend to inform a third party. And by the way, strictly-speaking, it does not matter if, in fact, there are no illegal images at the other end of the click.

“But a link is probably illegal under several other headings also. The person publishing or carrying such a link would be making themselves part of the distribution chain of child abuse images, they might be aiding or abetting the distribution.

“There is just no question about this. These are matters for the police, but whenever I speak to police officers around the world they all say the same thing – we are being ‘swamped’.

“That’s a worry, the Crown Prosecution Services website covers this and it is not difficult to find.”

CEOP later issued a second statement to us saying: “The confusion to your question arose in terms of sites and environments which have multiple users on forums etc who provide content.

“If someone posts links or adverts within the site they are the ones in breach of the legislation even though the environment as a whole may be legal. In these environments it’s an ethical question around those who run them which I think is what we are saying.

“It’s a question around the level of moderation and responsibility those who manage the environment have.”

We asked CEOP if it would be a good idea for all torrent sites to block keywords used by paedophiles, they said: “This would be a simple and common sense approach to prevent the distribution of illegal material, especially with eight out of ten of the top torrent sites having already done this.

“Blocking is controversial in terms of censorship and freedom of speech grounds but is also extremely difficult from a practical point of view. Responsible sites will stop and report links to illegal P2P content but sadly this is not always the case.

“The international nature of the internet, across multiple jurisdictions means policing these environments poses challenges for law enforcement. However CEOP is part of the Virtual Global Taskforce which brings together law enforcement agencies around the world to close the net on offenders and those who facilitate the sharing of indecent images of children online.”

When we asked if the priority should be on the reporting of child sex abuse content CEOP said: “Yes. Such content is the result of contact sexual abuse suffered by real children on a regular basis. Reducing the availability of such material is a child protection issue.”

Most of the torrent sites we viewed had a huge amount of information on how to report copyright infringements but surprisingly very little on how to report child sex abuse content.

Professor John walker from Nottingham Trent University and Founder of Glass-Ceiling Research is a World Class Info-Crime, Cyber Security Researcher who has worked within the Covert Worlds of CESG, GCHQ, with the Security Services.

In an exclusive interview with GPSJ, Walker said: “Where Torrents are holding any materials of on an illegal nature, such as those which infringe Copyright, no matter the global location, these should clearly be dealt with in an expedient manner to redress the balance of legality, and have the materials, remove, and see the hosting organisation, and all involved brought to some form of justice.

“However, where the illegal materials are holding any form of images and material that portray the ‘Abuse of Children’, which are classified against either the COPINE or SAP Scales, it should be the expectation of every reasonable person that these should not only be removed, seized, but that ALL involved parties are brought to fully account for their actions.

“I would also except that the force of the law place pressure on such owner organisations, and hosting facilities to make available the information relating to any other access, download, of uploading in order to ensure that all involved parties and users [abusers] are also located, and again dealt with – in my opinion, such is the serious nature of such an offence, nothing short of this will suffice.

“To allow any site to freely host, distribute, or make available materials which are underpinning Child Abuse in this current age is simply put, totally unacceptable. It is however a topic in which I believe many incumbent professionals place into the tray of all to the difficult, and thus tend to avoid the subject in public.

“For myself, and any other reasonable person, we must accept that, such images should not be tolerated in any form, and let us not forget that behind every image are single, or multiple young person’s suffering real time abuse to satisfy a very deviant international public – and it cannot, and should not be tolerated.

Ernesto Van Der Sar, editor in chief of TorrentFreak told GPSJ: -It is technically possible to block keywords words and some torrent sites have been working with the attorney General in the USA to filter child abuse content for a number of years now.

“You would have to ask though why others are not blocking keywords.

“I would also add that blocking these searches does not prevent this material from being spread it just makes it harder to find.”

The IWF told us they do not have any power to block peer 2 peer sites as this does not fall within their remit.

A spokesperson said: “The Internet Watch Foundation is the UK Hotline for anyone to report images and videos of child sexual abuse. We’re able to take action against this content where the images and videos are hosted in publicly available areas of the internet. Peer to peer does not fall within our remit.

“Where we receive a report which falls within our remit, and we have assessed the report as containing potentially criminal child sexual abuse content, we work to get that removed wherever in the world it is hosted. Equally, we take action against adverts, advertising child sexual abuse content.

“Each month we supply our Members with a list of keywords used by those seeking child sexual abuse images online. Our Members can use it to improve the quality of search returns, reduce the abuse of their networks and provide a safer online experience for internet users. Our keywords list current contains 438 words associated with child sexual abuse content.”

Sources also told GPSJ of a website hosted in the United States that allows paid access to internet newsgroups, it also offers potential customers a free thumbnail view of the newsgroup images before they sign up to the service.

The site lists thousands of newsgroups many containing images, they are listed in order of most popular first, with the ones topping the list describing images that would be illegal on the COPINE and SAP Scales. These scales are used by law enforcement and industry professionals in grading the seriousness of child sex abuse images.

The newsgroup site also boasts that users can download images with complete anonymity with no records kept of users personal details or downloads, it also operates a referral service enabling users to make money by persuading others to sign-up to the service.

It is alleged that illegal images are remaining on this site for weeks or even months before being removed – when they could and should be taken down immediately.

A key concept in the fight against child sex abuse images is the widely accepted premise that the victims suffer once again every time an image of their abuse is viewed.

We believe if this sort of material is made much harder to find this will result in a reduction of the possession and distribution of these types of images.

GPSJ is calling on the government to make it illegal for any UK website to advertise links describing any form of child sex abuse content, and to put pressure on the IT industry to block sites accessible from within the United Kingdom which promote such content.

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