Europol highlights barriers to investigating child abuse material

Europol has issued its latest report identifying the methods by which child abuse material is created and distributed on the internet.

Europol's European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) produced “The Child Sexual Exploitation Environment Scan” for the Virtual Global Taskforce (VGT), a multinational, multi-agency group dedicated to combating online child sexual abuse.

It identifies the latest methods used by offenders to solicit their victims and avoid detection while sharing abuse material online. It also highlights challenges faced by law enforcement in investigating perpetrators and bringing them to justice.

The report drew on the expertise of 35 specialist law enforcement officers from various VGT member agencies as well as information from Europol's 2014 and 2015 Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessments. It found that perpetrators are adapting their techniques as rapidly as internet technology evolves.

Europol stated that encryption and anonymous routing protocols such as TOR are making it difficult to identify and locate victims of ongoing abuse.

It also highlighted its concerns about children creating their own sexually explicit material through practices such as sexting.

Major General Nasser Lakhrebani Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Virtual Global Taskforce and minister of the interior of the United Arab Emirates, said: “In order to combat online child sexual exploitation, law enforcement must follow technological developments adopted by offenders to abuse and exploit children.”

Rob Wainwright, Europol's director, said: “As Internet technology further develops and previously under connected parts of the world come online, we can expect to see new offenders, new victims and new means of committing crimes against children. Increased law enforcement cooperation is key to fighting this dynamic criminal phenomenon.”

Raj Samani, chief technology officer EMEA at Intel Security, told that technology is making it increasingly difficult to find the victims and the perpetrators.

Samani recalled the case of the former popstar Gary Glitter, real name Paul Francis Gadd, convicted for possession of child abuse images in 1999. Gadd was arrested in November 1997 after he took his PC to a computer retailer for repair and thousands of images were discovered on his hard drive.

Criminals responded by encrypting their hard drives which led to the development of Part 3 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which gave law enforcement authorities the power to require suspects to hand over encryption keys or face imprisonment.

In the ongoing arms race between criminals and the law, the perpetrators have responded by switching to video streaming.

“That same level of innovation and advancement is what we see across all areas of crime, not just those individuals involved with child abuse material,” Samani said.

Samani said that the key to fighting the perpetrators of online child sexual abuse – and crucially identifying the victims – is cooperation between countries and law enforcement agencies.

“There is a clear recognition that digital is the modus operandi for child abuse material,” he said. “As a society we have to do everything we can to put the perpetrators of these heinous crimes behind bars, and as the private sector, we will do everything we can to support law enforcement in their efforts to combat this growing menace.”

The report, “The Child Sexual Exploitation Environment Scan”, will be available soon on the Virtual Global Taskforce website. 

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