Home Office minister addressed the NSPCC's child safety conference about the goverment's work to stamp out online sexual exploitation.
Thank you to the NSPCC for hosting this conference and inviting me to speak. I am conscious a lot of what we are going to talk about today is difficult and challenging. But I wanted to open on a congratulatory note, by wishing the world wide web a happy birthday – it celebrated its 25th birthday in March. The problems we are talking about could not have existed 2 decades ago.
The world wide web is an incredible tool and it is still young, compared to other means of mass communication such as the printing press. It is a fantastic invention but, as with many inventions, the web, so useful to us all in our everyday lives, can be put to a darker use.
And sadly – as we know – the internet is being used by some to facilitate appalling crimes. The most obvious of these, the sexual exploitation of children and the sharing of vile images of child sexual abuse.
The scale of the problem is staggering: there are millions of images of child sexual abuse on the internet.
We do need to pause and think about that scale. And about the untold number of children who lie behind this statistic, and who as a result of their experience are traumatised and in many cases left scarred for life.
Sadly, there is little sign – yet - that the number of offenders involved or the number of new images being posted is falling, so that is a difficult backdrop.
But the fight back has begun. As you have heard, last July, the Prime Minister made clear that confronting online child sexual exploitation is a crime that we must tackle head on, no matter how difficult it is as an issue to discuss, no matter how complex the way forward. As the Prime Minister said, in so many other areas of day to day life – in regards to where children are allowed to go, what they are allowed to do, and what they are allowed to buy – collectively, and in particular as parents, we take great care to protect our children. We must ensure the same is true online.
This is a concern for all of us – governments, law enforcement, education and charities as well as the industry and of course parents. They are our children.
We want to attack the sharing of images at all technical levels. We want to prevent these images being available on the open internet, to tackle those who share them using commonly available technology, and those who use sophisticated technology.
I am delighted that industry is rising to the considerable challenge this presents. I’m going to mention a few highlights – and thank Google and Microsoft in particular for their pioneering work in this field.
Google – and Microsoft – have taken positive action to ensure that illegal imagery is now much harder to access by removing predictions – the words that appear automatically as you begin to type in the search bar on search engines – which relate to child sexual abuse. This has removed child sexual abuse content from search results against 16,000 search terms – action which deters those seeking such images, and as a result of which, there has been a significant drop-off rate in click-throughs from these terms. I know that some of the figures from the Internet Watch Foundation show that the number of images available from open searches increased last year, and I will be keen to see whether the changes have made a significant impact.
Microsoft and Google are also working with the government, law enforcement, particularly the NCA-CEOP Command and the Internet Watch Foundation on a pilot to remove torrent links to child abuse images from search results. In addition, Google has launched a programme to second and embed their engineers in the Internet Watch Foundation and will fund internships for non-Google staff in the foundation.
But we know technology will keep changing; and more must be done.
In this world of increasing accessibility to the internet we face the appalling prospect that the number of potential child victims will grow. As access to the internet increases worldwide, so too will the opportunities for those who create and disseminate such vile material - and so will availability for those who want to look at it.
It is not just opportunities to create and share images that will grow. So too could opportunities for grooming – and the internet has enabled a shift from a more visible physical world to a more anonymous online space - and live video streaming.
As I say, technology doesn’t stand still – use of encryption, anonymous networks and remote storage is likely to challenge the way in which law enforcement agencies worldwide can identify victims and offenders. And I know our law enforcement agencies are meeting that challenge.
The role of government and enforcement
Clearly, the government and the police have an absolutely vital role to play in this. The Home Office has established a cross government Sexual Violence Against Children and Vulnerable People National Group. This panel of experts includes partners such as NSPCC and is delivering a package of changes to address nine priority areas. These include the protection of children from online grooming and sexual exploitation, prevention, working to identify better those at risk and creating a more victim-focused culture within the police, health and children’s services. Details of our plan to strengthen the protection of children from online and offline sexual exploitation and abuse were published last summer in the action plan of the National Group.
And you will also be aware that the National Crime Agency was established in October last year. Therein, the NCA-CEOP Command is the national lead for tackling sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children.
The NCA-CEOP Command is at the forefront of efforts to tackle more sophisticated forms of on-line child sex abuse – where encryption and anonymisation is used by offenders to share illegal child abuse images through photo-sharing sites or networks on the ‘hidden’ internet. It has already had considerable success in protecting children online – and now that the NCA-CEOP Command is an integral part of the NCA, it is better positioned and resourced to do even more.
Indeed, it has already achieved a notable success with Operation Endeavour, which broke up an organised crime group involved in appalling live streaming of child sexual abuse from the Philippines across the world. Through that operation 29 people were arrested internationally, including 17 in the UK, and 15 children in the Philippines aged 6-15 are now being safeguarded from sexual abuse.
The new NCA is unique in being the only multi disciplinary agency that can draw on the skills of law enforcement, child safeguarding and corporate businesses to help protect and safeguard children and I know that the NSPCC is a highly valued partner and integral part of the NCA-CEOP Command. They attach their staff there to work as an integral part of the team. Their experience and expertise as child protection specialists is regarded as one of the reasons for NCA-CEOP Command’s success.
Furthermore, it has a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in England and Wales. This means that all NCA officers, not just those directly involved in child protection, have a legal duty to safeguard and promote child welfare – which is a powerful force for good.
The role of industry
But ridding the internet of abhorrent child sexual abuse imagery I believe is not just a concern for law enforcement and government.
The majority of us use the internet as a tool: to do our banking, to shop, to listen to music, some people use it to cheat on the crossword.
In fact, it is such an essential part of daily life to most of us, that I’d argue that those who provide access to it are in effect providing a service – and as such they have a responsibility to us, its users and customers, and those whose life it touches.
While the internet quite properly should be free and open, I believe that the onus is on all of us – government and industry - to ensure that the internet and communications technology can’t be abused to facilitate sexual offences against children. We need to work together – nationally and internationally – to achieve this. But governments can’t supply all of the answers, and enforcement alone can’t solve all the problems.
What government and law enforcement can do, however, is identify where the problems are. But we need your help in coming up with the solutions. Industry has already done much, but we will need to look to you as the experts, to do more.
That is because the solutions to the challenges facing us are often technological.
Let me set out the 5 main challenges as we see them today:
1, child sex offenders target children online via social networking sites and will extort or coerce them into participating in sexual activity, including the production of images and sexual acts on camera. We need a solution which will detect these crimes at their outset, which will deter and identify the offenders, and which will protect children who are vulnerable to this crime.
2, where images are taken they will often be shared by offenders across anonymous networks like The Onion Router. We need a technological solution to address the increasing use of anonymous networks by offenders.
3, we need to be able to identify images that are held in remote storage by offenders.
4, images may also be stored on remote servers, bulletin board websites or cloud storage. New technologies or methods are needed so that industry can search its own networks and servers for illegal imagery, removing it and alerting law enforcement agencies.
5, we are seeing an increase in the use of live video streaming software to solicit, direct, and view child sexual abuse as it occurs often in developing countries orchestrated by organised criminals. New technologies are needed to detect when these crimes are being committed, how they are being advertised and to identify the offenders and victims so that children can be rescued and offenders investigated prosecuted, and convicted.
As I said, the common theme in tackling these five challenges is that the solutions are technological. And that’s why we, along with the US government, set up the Taskforce to Counter Online Child Exploitation and NCA-CEOP have invested resources in that endeavour.
We in government have asked Joanna Shields, UK Ambassador for Digital Industries to work with the brightest minds from across the technology industry to identify what can be done to tackle online child sexual offending.
The Taskforce met for the first time in December last year to outline the challenges, but industry will find solutions. We as Government don’t want to impose solutions with our limited understanding of technology. We want industry to come up with solutions that work for them.
In terms of the next steps Joanna Shields will be holding an industry solutions event on 20 and 21 May – where experts from across the technology sector will be invited to an event and encouraged to come up with innovative solutions to tackle the sharing of images online and adults interacting with children online for sexual purposes.
The solutions identified will be tested and developed over the course of the summer. For those that are deemed viable, implementation plans will be presented to the final Taskforce meeting this October.
This is of course only one part of the government’s work to tackle online Child Sexual Exploitation. We support wider international work, such as the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online and the Virtual Global Taskforce. And we will improve law enforcement agencies’ capabilities with projects such as the Child Abuse Image Database. As well as EU Initiatives such as the cyber CSE programme in which the UK is the driver country with NCA-CEOP as the Chair.
As you can see the Taskforce has a formidable amount of work to do within a very short amount of time – it will report to the Prime Minister and the U.S. Attorney General in November.
But we are doing it this fast because we cannot afford delay - there are no second chances where a child’s future or wellbeing is concerned. We have a once in a generation opportunity to make a tangible difference to protecting children across the globe. We – government, law enforcement and industry – must transform the way technology is used, from it being an enabler of child sex abuse to it having an active role in fighting this appalling crime.
Thank you very much.