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Report reveals majority of police encounter online child sexual abuse

New Middlesex University report shows six out of ten police officers investigate child online sexual abuse

A new report launched by Middlesex University entitled Enhancing Police and Industry Practice reveals the majority of UK police officers have been involved with investigating online child sexual abuse.

The authors warn better collaboration between police and the online industry is desperately needed to protect children from online sexual abuse.

This EU-funded report explores for the first time the policing and industry practice in the prevention of online child sexual abuse and the experience of young people online, including the experience of victimisation.

The report covers online child sexual abuse offending, indecent child image collection and grooming.

“Law enforcers, politicians, teachers and parents have very complex challenges ahead if online child sexual abuse can be tackled effectively. We are hopeful that our extensive study can help guide the way in this area,” Jeffrey DeMarco, Research Fellow in Criminology at Middlesex University

The report highlights that around 2.9 billion people - almost half of the world’s current population - are now online. Protecting children and vulnerable people is likely to become increasingly challenging. This is particularly the case when young people are more likely to be ‘tech savvy’ than their parents, teachers and the police.

Professor Julia Davidson, co-director of the Centre for Abuse & Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex and lead author of the report, says a new approach to tackling online child abuse is vital.

“With technology evolving, young people’s knowledge of the internet is surpassing that of older generations,” she says.

“There is a strong argument for technology industries and policing collaborating with other key stakeholders from education and health to develop a safer online environment for children.

“While the internet provides amazing opportunities for education, networking and communication it also poses a serious risk to some children and young people.”

Co-author Jeffrey DeMarco, Research Fellow in Criminology at Middlesex University says rapidly changing technology makes new techniques in policing essential.

“The internet provides a level of anonymity and invisibility which means that offenders can hide away by masking IP address and using proxy servers,” he says.

“Offenders are able to develop techniques and use evolving technology to commit crime with the knowledge that many police forces do not have the training and resources to be able to identify every possible way of offending online.”

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • The development of systematic policing and industry collaboration
  • Industry contribution in the form of mentoring of specialist police officers, industry points of contact for police forces, joint industry and law enforcement task forces, and Industry contribution to law enforcement training
  • Clear shared international definitions of online child sexual abuse supported by an updated United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which includes cyber abuse
  • Policy, legislation and practice must become more responsive and able to rapidly adapt to an evolving cyberspace

Chief Constable Simon Bailey from the Norfolk Constabulary says the report highlights the scale of problems in this area.

"The number of online child sexual abuse cases dealt with by the police is at a level that we could not have thought possible," he says.

"This important research highlights both the scale of the problem and the difficulties faced by police officers every week in investigating these sensitive cases.

"It is clear that this is an international problem and that a more co-ordinated approach to significant and ongoing collaboration with industry is needed both at national and international level to support and underpin the excellent work undertaken by officers."

Fernando Ruiz, Head of Operations at the European Cybercrime Centre at Europol, is confident about the future of policing in this area.

"Law enforcement will continue working with industry to educate against, prevent and investigate the many different abuses of children through online platforms,” he says.

“Europol is committed to such a partnership approach and building capacity through its training courses within the Member States and partner countries.

“These initiatives and ongoing efforts work to ensure that all law enforcement and industry recognize the importance and benefits of cooperating to combat online child sexual abuse and exploitation."

Picture attribution: Computer Keyboard, Marcie Casas, Flickr Creative Commons 2.1

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