johncarrFormer UN senior expert advisor and member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, John Carr OBE, looks at the shocking rise in child abuse images online in his blog:

Thanks to some excellent work by the NSPCC it feels like several pieces of a complex jigsaw have started falling into place. But the picture which is emerging is profoundly disturbing, verging on completely unbelievable.

FOI requests

The NSPCC sent out Freedom of Information requests to all 43 local police forces in England and Wales. From the five forces that replied(Cambridgeshire, Dyfed-Powys, Humberside, Lincolnshire & Nottinghamshire) it was revealed that between March 2010 and April 2012 they had seized nearly 26 million child abuse images. Between them the five forces had 4,006,600 inhabitants so this represents 7.25% of the entire population of England and Wales that are engaged in accessing child abuse images.

It's hard to know why the 38 absentee forces did not reply so for now I'm going to assume the sample provided by the five that did is not significantly skewed one way or another. Different police forces give a higher or lower priority to online child protection work and it is not clear why. Not all forces have a dedicated online child protection unit or team but across the whole country I think the overall picture will even out.

Anyway what we are trying to glimpse here, in a sense, is not what the police are doing but what the people living in their operational areas might be doing. What we know about the individuals who are arrested for child abuse image offences is that they come from all walks of life.

Astonishing figures

If you simply ramped up the number of seized images pro rata this would suggest that something like 360 million might have been seized overall across England and Wales in the two years in question. If you exclude Cambridgeshire's numbers as being somehow freakish you end up with 8,837,511 images from 5.8% of the population. That still produces a potential national total in excess of 150,000,000.

What the numbers do not mean

Now at one level big numbers like these don't necessarily tell you anything very much. I have documented a case where one man was found with 2.5 million images so whether the number is 26 million, 200 million or 350 million that does not mean 26, 220 or 350 million children were abused to generate the illegal images. There will be tens upon tens of millions of duplicates of the same images.

Last time I heard an estimate, and it was some time ago, it was suggested there were about 1,000,000 unique images involving upwards of 50,000 individual children from all parts of the world. However, both those numbers pre-date the "sexting" phenomenon. They could each be significantly higher now. Many sexting images have made their way into the body of illegal material now being exchanged by paedophiles and collectors.

These large numbers probably tell us something about the obsessive nature of some collectors' habits. They don't necessarily tell us how dangerous to children any individual collector is likely to be in the future. A person found in possession of one image could easily be as dangerous or even be more dangerous than someone found with millions of them.

However, I think there is a kind of macabre poetry in these mind-boggling figures. They definitely send out the message that something has changed within society, something big and bad has happened and I'm not sure we have properly come to terms with it.

Not long before the internet arrived in our midst Interpol claimed to know of only 4,000 unique images of child abuse across the entire planet. The UK police say they knew of 7,000. A few hundred children were depicted. That's in the whole of recorded history up to that point, about 1995. In Greater Manchester the police seized the grand total of 12 images that year.

Thus the sheer volume of child abuse images now in circulation, and the number of people involved in collecting them, has altered beyond all recognition.

A network of abuse

The number of people convicted or cautioned for image-related offences has not yet exceeded 2,000 in any twelve months. Only 2,312 people were arrested for image related offences last year and I think that might be the highest ever.

Peter Davies, Head of CEOP, the UK's lead police agency for online child protection acknowledges for the first time in public something insiders have known for a while. The police have the technical capability to monitor the number of people exchanging child abuse images over Peer2Peer networks. On 1st July the British police revealed to The Sun that their estimate of the number of people involved in exchanging child abuse images over Peer2Peer networks in the UK is 50,000 to 60,000.

Down from 80,000

Originally I had heard unconfirmed reports the number of people in the UK using these networks to exchange child abuse images was around 80,000. I now understand that on further analysis, to eliminate possible duplicates and other potential errors CEOP shaved off 20 to 30 thousand.

Think about that for a moment. Let's take the lower number and make 50,000 the baseline. As we have seen, we have yet to break the 2,000 barrier in terms of convictions in any year and the number of arrests is not much higher. And 50,000 is roughly 7 times larger than the 7,200 names that formed the basis of Operation Ore. Operation Ore nearly brought parts of our criminal justice system to a full stop.

The arrests and prosecutions that were made under Ore were spread over the best part of three years and not everyone on the list of 7,200 received a knock on the door never mind got arrested. Not by a long chalk. If it took the police the best part of three years to knock on the doors of the Ore suspects they decided deserved a visit, and upwards of 30% were never seen at all, what do we imagine is going to happen facing a number like 50,000?

None of this is the fault of the police. I believe the police have never been given the right level of resources to do the job that needs to be done. What I find slightly disappointing, though, is that the police service does not make more of a fuss about it. If a Cabinet Minister swears at one of the boys in blue it is headline news for days with the Police Federation calling for a resignation. Chronic under resourcing of child protection which leaves children at risk struggles to get air time. It's a funny old world.

Matching Ore will not be good enough

In the un-sifted, non-triaged 50,000 Peer2Peer users, if CEOP's meta-analysis is to be believed, there could be up to 27,500 child abusers in amongst them. It beggars belief.

Even if the police were only to repeat the same proportion of arrests they managed in Ore, we are still talking about them visiting between 30,000 and 35,000 people in order to find the 27,500 future or current child abusers. I wonder if anyone thinks that will happen either at all or within any sort of reasonable time scale?

And just to depress you thoroughly and put this in some sort of context, here's an interesting factoid. On 12th October, 2012, the operational capacity of the prison system in England and Wales was 91,000, and it was pretty much fully taken up. What would we do with 27,500 newly convicted child abusers? Could that daunting number be in any way influencing the police's or the CPS's operational policies or priorities?

As a society we are going to have to look again at the role of preventative measures. Organizations like the NSPPC and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation have been speaking about this for years and have had woefully insufficient recognition and support from the authorities, local and national.

Improved technical measures are essential

Thanks to the IWF and the approach of the internet industry as a whole in relation to blocking access to Newsgroups and web sites containing child abuse images, that part of the challenge has been substantially dealt with. But as we have just seen we are nowhere near solving the problem of Peer2Peer networks. The IWF has no remit to tackle Peer2Peer. It is an altogether different kettle of fish. Improved technical measures will have to be part of the answer: we cannot arrest our way out of this.

The internet is not to blame for this state of affairs. People do bad things, not otherwise inanimate machines. But what undoubtedly is the case is that whatever we have all been trying up to now to deal with this problem it ain't working. Government, police, the internet industry, NGOs, must think again. Either we need to redefine the problem or we have to come up with new and convincing strategies for dealing with it as it is.

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