This story contains detail of child abuse some readers may find disturbing.
Ease of access to technologies such as live streaming is increasing the production and spread of child exploitation material online.
Our report, Behind the Screen: Online Child Exploitation in Australia, brings together cases and data from international and Australian law enforcement agencies, as well as interviews with government, police and non-governmental organisations, to provide an alarming snapshot of the challenge we face.
Tens of thousands of images and video are already available online, and the problem is likely to worsen without comprehensive action.
New technologies and child exploitation
In Australia and around the world, rates of live-streamed child abuse via webcam, video footage and image capture are growing.
Figures from the Internet Watch Foundation support this trend, showing that reports of child sexual abuse imagery rose by 417% between 2013 and 2015. The Australian Federal Police received 11,000 online child exploitation reports in 2015.
Technological advancements including anonymising programs such as TOR, peer to peer networking technology and the capacity for increased online file storage and sharing, has facilitated the widespread sharing and storing of harmful material.
This view was shared by a senior officer from the Queensland Police Project “Argos”, which investigates online child exploitation. He told us,
Back in the early 2000s we were dealing with kilobytes and megabytes. Now we are dealing with petabytes, mainly terabytes when we do our seizures… [T]he cheaper cost of storage whether it be cloud based or hard disk based is creating obviously, larger seizures on our front.
Responding to new technology is challenging. Online child exploitation crimes are difficult to track and measure, given the spread of more secure technologies, such as streaming services, the anonymity provided by the “dark web” and less traceable payment systems such as Bitcoin.
In the words of a senior officer with Argos,
How difficult is it? Look, if they are using TOR and they are set up and don’t make mistakes, it’s impossible. We’re reliant on some fairly innovative law enforcement techniques and them making errors… if they’re using proxies or anonymising services using encryptions and using the so-called Darknet or TOR, it would be very tough… the hidden web is very, very challenging, but you know that doesn’t mean we give up. We keep trying.
The cases of Shannon McCoole and Matthew Graham
The production and sharing of child exploitation online was key to two recent Australian criminal cases.
In 2016, Matthew Graham was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for distributing child exploitation material.
Graham administered online websites and forums between 2012 and 2014. He shared hundreds of thousands of images, including videos of the torture and rape of a young child in the Philippines, and in one instance, encouraged the rape and murder of a child in Russia.
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigations described Graham’s network as “one of the largest and most extreme in the world”.
In 2015, Shannon McCoole was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment with charges related to his role as head administrator of a global online network with 45,000 members.
The sentencing judge in the McCoole case drew attention to the challenges posed by secretive computer networks and websites created for the specific purpose of distributing exploitative material.
The network allowed communication between individuals in a secure fashion that enabled them to contact each other and share data without necessarily identifying themselves. It was highly sophisticated, elaborate, organised and controlled.
The McCoole case also showed that Australian law has not kept pace with the scale and nature of the crimes. While McCoole was based in Australia and operated the network here, our research found there are no federal legislative provisions dealing with the administration of online child exploitation material networks where the administrator is based in Australia.
In contrast, a few state jurisdictions have introduced provisions, although the effectiveness of these new laws has not been tested.
What Australia should do
Australia must confront the rapid increase of gravely exploitative material online.
We need to review the effectiveness of our existing regulatory frameworks, including those governing internet service providers, search engines and social media services.
We recommend the following steps be taken, among others:
- Outdated industry codes must be changed. Particularly, there is a lack of clarity relating to the legal obligations of internet service providers to report child exploitation material that is hosted on their networks.
- A peak national body with representatives from government, law enforcement agencies and other key stakeholders at state, territory and commonwealth levels should be established to review all relevant legislation.
- The Broadcasting Services Act must be amended so instances of online child exploitation material on servers hosted in Australia are identified and investigated.
- Sentencing outcomes for online exploitation offences should be researched to further explore the relationship between human trafficking and online child exploitation.
Offenders are routinely caught with thousands of images. A coordinated and powerful response is necessary if we are to protect children.
Anyone can report abuse or illegal activity online to the Australian Federal Police using a form available here. To report emergencies, such as a child who is in immediate danger or risk, call 000, Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000 or your local police station.
Correction: The Internet Watch Foundation has found that reports of child sexual abuse imagery rose by 417% between 2013 and 2015. This figure was originally incorrectly credited to the Australian Federal Police.
Authors: Jennifer Burn, Professor, Faculty of Law and Director of Anti-Slavery Australia, University of Technology Sydney