The amount of child exploitation material online has doubled in the past year. What on earth is going on?
“Twenty years ago, online images were a problem. Ten years ago an epidemic. Now, the crisis is at a breaking point,” according to a New York Times investigation published this weekend.
And the word “images” hardly does justice to the horror, including material showing the rape, abuse and even torture of children as young as three years old.
The impact on the lives of child victims, and frequently their parents, is the stuff of nightmare.
Many told Times investigators that “their view of humanity had been inextricably changed” both by the crimes themselves and by the voracious online demand for images of them.
The word “images” hardly does justice to the horror, including material showing the rape, abuse and even torture of children as young as three years old.
Currently, the internet is host to 45 million photos and videos of child sexual abuse, according to reports by technology companies. And legislative measures undertaken in the US and elsewhere in recent years have done nothing to stop the explosion of this material.
In fact, it is proliferating at a greater velocity than ever before.
“Insatiable criminal underworld”
The Times investigation found “an insatiable criminal underworld” was undeterred by regulation efforts. It also found that tech companies bore substantial responsibility for the crisis.
These digital giants have been lax about the detection and removal of child sexual abuse imagery. And in cases where they do find it, they have frequently failed to cooperate with government authorities.
Now, the avalanche of abusive images is believed to exceed the capacity of any human regulators - no matter how well intentioned. Experts now believe advanced machine learning techniques, whereby technology essential teaches itself how to solve problems, may be the only solution.
In 1998, authorities received over 3,000 reports of child sexual abuse imagery. A decade later, that number had soared to 100,000.
In 2014, the number of reports exceeded one million.
Last year, it topped 18 million.
Using encryption technology and the dark web, the online groups that support these crimes are teaching pedophiles how to record and share images of the abuse they perpetrate.
Increasingly extreme images
The problem is not simply more images - but more extreme material targeting ever-younger children.
Some law enforcement agencies, the Times reported, have resorted to managing their workload by focusing on the youngest victims.
In the words of one veteran child-sex detective “We go home and think, ‘Good grief, the fact that we have to prioritize by age is just really disturbing.”
How tech companies are responding
The big tech companies like Facebook and Google are required by law to report child pornography when it is discovered. But they are not required to seek it out.
But many companies have increased their surveillance voluntarily. They even point to the rise in reports of abuse material as proof of their commitment.
Times investigators found proof that technology companies “have known for years that their platforms were being co-opted by predators, but many of them essentially looked the other way, according to interviews and emails detailing the companies’ activities.”