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The detection of online child abuse in UK

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5275 words Published: 9th Dec 2020

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The explosion and availability of the internet have seen huge advancements in the world of communications and business. However, along with the benefits the internet has created a new environment for criminals to engage in criminal activity. Theft and fraud are the more common crimes committed on the internet but a more disturbing crime is on the increase.

Child abuse has been around for centuries but with advancements in technology, the upsurge in social networking sites and instant messenger services, children are now at greater risk from online sexual abuse within their own homes as the PC, gaming consoles and even mobile phones become the gateways for abusers and organised networks of criminals to prey.

This reports aims to look at the way the United Kingdom legal system alongside national and international agencies are working together in order to tackle the growing problem of online child abuse. This report will also highlight cases of abusers who have been jailed for their crimes and also highlight the roles played by Internet Service providers, the media, charities, education and families who all have a role to play in keeping children safe online.

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What Constitutes Child Abuse?

In order to discuss the prosecution and detection of child abuse, it is important to primarily define the term child abuse. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, 1999) the term child abuse refers to the ill treatment of children which includes “sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and exploitation that results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, development or dignity” (World Health Organisation, 1999) or in its purest form “when an adult intentionally hurts a child under the age of 18” (NSPCC, 2011). It is difficult to define the term “online child abuse” as it encompasses all of the charcteristics of the current definition of child abuse as already described however, the term “online” reflects the methodology deployed by the offenders. Online child abuse has many characteristics, e.g., bullying, and more serious offences such as creating and downloading images of sexually abused children or approaching children to engage in sexual conduct either online or offline (HUWY, 2011) now legally known as grooming under The Sexual Offences Act 2003 (s14 & s15).

A well publicised example of this was witnessed In Durham Crown Court, March 2010, where Peter Chapman was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering 17 year old girl Ashleigh Hall who he had lured through the social networking site Facebook. He created the persona of a teenage youth in order to lure Ashleigh Hall into meeting him (Stokes, P, 2010). At the trial it is estimated Chapman had used the social networking site to make contact with “2981 females between the ages of 13 and 31” (Armstrong, et al., 2010).

Internet Usage

Since 2001, the number of children using the internet has increased dramatically. A report commisioned by the London School of Economics in 2005 (UK Children Go Online) estimated in the 9 to 19 years age group, 75% of children had internet access at home, rising to 92% access at school (Livingstone, et al., 2005). A report by Ofcom in 2008 indicated that 35% of all 12 to 15 year olds had access to the internet in their bedrooms, 16% of 8 to 11 year olds and even children in the 5 to 7 year age group accounted for 3% (OFCOM, 2009). As technology has developed and the internet is now more accessible through other platforms such as mobile phone technology and online gaming consoles, the UK Council for Child Internet Child Saftey’s Click Clever Click safe campaign highlighted the Ofcom report by revealing that of the 44 million people who currently have internet access in the UK, 99% were in the 8 to 17 year age group (OFCOM2009 cited in UKCCIS, 2009).

Although it is virtually impossible to quantify the total number of unprosecuted online child abuse offences, a report conducted in 2000 by the Internet Crime forum (ICF) estimated that 1 in 5 children online had been “approached by paedophiles or other undesirables online” (cited in Childnet, 2001).

In view of the increasing usage of the internet and mounting crime against children committed online, in 2007, the Labour Government sanctioned an independent review into child online safety and commissioned Dr Tanya Byron to produce a report detailing the risks and effects of children surfing online. The Safer Children in a Digital World report was published in April 2008 and recommended “a national strategy for Child Safety and a shared culture of responsibility” in order to sustain safety (Byron, 2008). The report focused on the need for legislation, education and parents to all play their role in internet safety.

The childrens charity Barnardos as recently as January 2011 reported in their publication Puppet on a String, (Barnardos, 2011) the dangers of child exploitation both on and offline. Using figures recorded by CEOP, Barnardos revealed a 16% year on year increase of reported crimes of which 25% were directly of an online nature. In 2008/9, 5411 crimes were recorded and by 2009/10 that had increased to 6291 (CEOP, 2010).

As well as potential for criminal contact between adults and children, the internet has become a portal for offenders to upload and view images an videos of children engaged in sexual acts. There are no official or unofficial figures on the number of child abuse images on the internet but of the 34,871 websites reported to the Internet Watch Foundation in 2007, 85% of those contained images of children in a sexual nature (IWF, 2008).

Undoubtedly the rise in internet use and availability of web services will create opportunities for offenders to distribute indecent photographs and videos of abused children, hence the number of pictures will inevitably increase. (Taylor, et al, 2003 cited: Byron, 2008, 3.41, p51).

As the use of the internet by children increases and its portability through technology advances further, its is increasingly more important that children, parents and teachers are more aware and knowledgeable of the dangers of being online. This goes hand in hand with mechanisms in place to prevent and report unsolicited or criminal activity and adequate legislation to convict offenders of these heinous crimes.

Online Child Abuse and UK Law

Legislation created to protect children and subsequently prosecute those guilty of child abuse offences in the United Kingdom falls under many acts of legislation in the UK legal system.

The Children and Young Persons Act of 1933, (part 1, c12) still in force today, states the legal obligation to protect children from “the prevention of Cruelty and Exposure to Moral and Physical Danger” (Childrens and Young Persons Act 1933, c12, 2011). Section 1 (1) of The Indecency with Children Act of 1960, goes further by stating it “is an offence to individually or with another incite or engage in acts of gross indecency with a child” (Childnet, 2001) and is therefore liable for conviction .

Today the legislation for the protection of children online or offline is rooted in The Children Act (1989) and the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. Section 31 of The Children Act states that harm to a child legally constitute “the ill-treatment, impairment of health or development of a child which can include sexual abuse and non physical ill treatment” (The Children Act 1989, 2011)S31, [f3, (9).

The Protection of Children Act 1978 (England and Wales) (c.37) states it is illegal “to take, possess, distribute or publish indecent photographs of children under the age of 16” [f22,(6). In May 2004, The Sexual Offences Act (2003, S.45), amended the age limit to include children up to the age of 18 unless defendants could prove they were a) in a relationship with the child involved (section 1A (1) and b) the child had consented to the photographs being taken (section 1A (4). In April 2008, The Police and Justice Act (2008, s39,) revised section 11 of The Protection of Children Act 1978 further by giving the police the powers to remove and retain indecent photographs of children under the age of 18 unless the defendant could prove they had a legitimate reason for being in possession of such material (IWF,2011).

In August 2008, Paul Hagan was charged and convicted in Teesside Crown Court for possessing 15,000 child abuse images and distributing nearly 4400 to others. It is estimated that the website collectively had nearly a million indecent images and video clips relating to child abuse (Hunter, 2010).

Computer generated Images, not necessarily photographs that depict or infer children engaging in sexual activity are also illegal and fall under the remit of the Coroners and Justice Act (2009) pt2, ch2, (65). This Act defines an image as “a moving or still image produced by any means” (legislation.gov.uk, 2011)

Where the offence involves technology, Online Child abuse is still dealt with as an offence against the child and is determined and punishable also under many acts of the UK legal system in both the criminal and civil courts. However, new legislation incorporates the new methodologies of Child abuse not applicable in for example the creation of The Children and Young Persons Act of 1933; a time when information technology was not invented.

The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 was produced as a result of a government investigation in 2000 into sexual offences. The Home Secretary at that time, David Blunkett, viewed the existing legislation and legally and socially outdated and inadequate to deal with mounting public pressure to deal seriously with sex offenders and also to reflect changing social attitudes. (Batty, D, 2003).

The Sexual Offences Act (c42, Part 1 sections 14 & 15) relates to the relatively new offence of sexual grooming. Sexual grooming in the UK is legally defined as “communicating with a child with the intention of meeting in order to commit a sexual offence” (The National Archives, 2010). If an adult (a person over the age of 18) is seen to have attempted to make contact and arrange to meet with a child on more than one occasion with the intention of committing a sexual act, they will be liable to prosecution under the Sexual offences Act of 2003 s15, (1)(a). Successful prosecutions of this offence can lead to prison sentences of ten years (Sexual Offences Act 2003 s15, (4)(b). Further to this revision, another new law came into force to further protect children further. Under Section 42 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 part 2, 123 (a)(b), A senior police chief can apply to the courts for a civil Risk of Sexual Harm Order (The Crown Prosecution Service, 2011) against an adult who has previously been involved in illicit conduct with a child on more than one occasion even if they may not have necessarily been convicted of such crime. The Risk of Sexual Harm order serves to protect children by placing a minimum of a 2 year order on an adult considered to be a threat to not engage in any form of sexual activity, whether it is verbal, via instant messaging services or in internet chat room (Blackburn City Council, 2011) .

On conviction of any sexual offence whether online or offline involving a child (post 1997), the offender is placed on the Sex Offenders Register and will have to comply with orders governed under Sexual Offences Act (2003) c42, part 2, Section 81 (1) that relate to the Sex Offenders Act (1997) pt1. Under this act the offenders must report to a Police station within 3 days of conviction and inform of any address changes or movement which may involve them being away from their current address for more than 7 days. Failure to comply can result in a 5 year jail term (CPS, 2011). Offenders can remain on the sex offenders register indefinitely if their conviction for this offence resulted in a 30 month or more jail sentence. For jail sentences of a lesser term, the length of time spent on the register is seven to ten years or half that time if the offender is less than 18 years old (Batty, 2006).

Having served jail sentences and being placed on the Sex Offenders register, under the Proceeds of Crime Act (2002) and the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005) (SOCA, 2011), the police now have the power to remove/seize assets of offenders that have been made through Child abuse offences. This act enables police to confiscate goods through any criminal conduct deemed so in UK law. (The Guardian, 2009).

Detecting Online Abuse

Responsibility for the detection and prosecution of offline and increasingly more online Child abuse crimes in the UK involves a myriad of specialised agencies. The sensitive nature of this crime requires specialist, sensitive and professional management from the start of an investigation to the end from the child’s perspective and the alleged offender. Successful convictions are to be commended; yet cases where there has been an arrest but no conviction can have ominous consequences for those involved.

The Government, Crown Prosecution Service, E crime units at local police forces, Internet Service Providers (ISP’s), charities such as The Internet Watch Foundation, local authorities and education all play a role in the protection of children from child abuse.

The UK collaborates with European directives and international organisations in order to share information and specialist advice.

At European level, the Council of European Convention on the Protection of Children against sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse came into force in July 2010 (CET.201), stating each member states responsibility to protect children and enforce the law on child abuse offences (EU, 2010) in accordance with Section . Further to this, there are currently proposals to extend the powers each government’s hold further to force internet service providers to adhere to the Internet Watch Foundations (IWF) block list of offending web sites and remove the site from the host (Williams, 2011).

On a worldwide level, The Virtual Global Taskforce is an example of one such organisation that operates on an international level. The Global Virtual Taskforce was formed in 2003 and consists of 7 multinational police forces from countries such as The UK, Canada and Australia who pool information and strategies in order to protect and educate children and ensure prosecution of offenders (VGT, 2011).

Interpol also have a central database of suspects and the movement of offenders whom it shares with specialised units within police forces worldwide known as the International Child Sex Exploitation image Database (ICSE-DB) (INTERPOL, 2010). Interpol also release what are termed as green notices to organisations involved in Child abuse detection to warn of the movement of a convicted offender who may have located in their area (INTERPOL, 2010).

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Service (CEOP)

The key taskforce currently operating in the UK today created specifically to report, detect and tackle the growing problem of online child abuse is the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Service, otherwise known as CEOP.

CEOP was created in 2006 as an independent central unit for detecting individuals and paedophile rings that use the internet to commit such crimes. All UK reported cases of Child abuse whether relating to on or offline offences are reported to CEOP.

CEOP was the result of the creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (2006) (SOCA) which in turn overhauled the National Hi-tech Crime Unit of 2001 (NHTCU). The NHTCU was originally created to tackle the growing problem of all crime committed on the internet. With the creation of SOCA, the NHTCU was incorporated into SOCA’s E crime unit and online crimes against the child fell under the remit of CEOP.

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CEOP is a multi professional unit of the police force which operates alongside and with the full power of the law. Based on information received, CEOP has the authority to investigate and on successful proof of evidence, prosecute offenders The organisation consists of highly trained police officers, IT experts, with assistance from internet service providers (ISP), local authorities, psychologists and educational agencies who collaborate in order to identify, locate and protect children from potential abuse (CEOP, 2006-10). The organisation has an online reporting mechanism on their website for the public to use if they suspect or have been a victim of child abuse. It also holds a database of the most wanted suspects who are currently wanted for questioning in relation to child sex abuse offences.

CEOP have also created with the assistance of social networking sites like Facebook, a panic button known as “ClickCEOP” enabling children to click and report unsolicited or potentially criminal activity (Allan, 2010).

The main function of CEOPS is the detection of online crime against children. Intelligence gathering is one of the key activities of the organisation and involves working nationally and internationally with police forces and experts to coordinate information and track activity across computer networks. CEOP also with the assistance of other agencies attempts to trace convicted offenders who have contravened their conditions determined under the Sex Offenders register.

With the authority from The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2002, (RIPA), CEOP is able to share information with other police authorities and non police agencies e.g. local government authorities and councils, as the knock on effects of Child abuse often will require intervention from Social services departments.

CEOP is a multi faceted organisation. As well as crime detection CEOP operates preventative measures and works alongside other organisations e.g. NSPCC and software companies like Microsoft to help eradicate online child abuse. It also plays a major role in the education and training of professionals who work within this field, e.g. police officers, social workers and regards itself as a truly holistic organisation that not only deals with the responsibility of detecting crime but works as an agency that endeavours through research and detection methods to trace movement of offenders and offences. This technique known as crime mapping facilitates in locating individuals and organised gangs and pinpoints areas where these crimes have been committed in order to forewarn local police forces and monitor offenders before they offend again. CEOP also aim to educate and promote awareness of safely using the internet through its campaigns such as its thinkuknow website which was developed to educate children and adults responsible for the web safety of children (Thinkuknow, 2007).

Since its launch in 2006, CEOP and its associated agencies have seen dramatic rises in the numbers of offenders successfully brought to justice. Official figures from the CEOP website indicate in the years 2009-10, 1121 offenders were arrested compared to 83 in 2006-07 (CEOP, 2010). In the same period, the organisation has also been responsible for smashing 262 paedophile networks in comparison to 29 in 2006-7 (CEOP , 2010).

The creation of a National Crime Agency in 2013, proposed by the current Government will see the merger of CEOP with SOCA and the UK Border Agency into one solitary unit. This has been met with in trepidation by those involved as there are fears CEOP will lose its independence and ability to provide a holistic service. The former head of CEOP, Jim Gamble resigned his post believing the move away from a dedicated child abuse unit will seriously but children at risk and return the service to a police department with little scope for all the other services the organisation currently provides(Booth, 2010) (Police Oracle, 2011).

The Internet Watch Foundation

Another key organisation involved in the fight against online child exploitation is the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). The IWF is a registered charity formed in 1996 by members of the internet industry. Funded by the EU, the IWF operates alongside law enforcement agencies including CEOP and the internet industry and attains to tackle, block and remove illegal content on the web. The IWF does not have the legal powers of CEOP as it is not part of the UK police force but works and reports to the police on all website activity it investigates and is considered illegal under UK Law.

THE IWF operates in conjunction with CEOP and operates a “notice and takedown policy” (IWF, 1996-2011) which enables them to block or remove UK websites which host illegal content. Where the images are hosted internationally the IWF can block UK access and then informs the relevant agencies of the country where the material is hosted. The IWF does not have the authority to remove content held on international servers and different laws apply in different countries, i.e. what the UK may deem offensive or containing criminal content might not be the case in another country. Amongst its other remit the IWF operates an online reporting mechanism on their internet homepage asimilar to the one provided by CEOP that enables internet users to report websites that may contain indecent images of children or criminal content. The IWF maintain a database or block list of websites believed to host illegal content which it distributes to internet services providers, mobile phone and communications operators both nationally and internationally. This enables those in the industries to take action to break up networks of crime.

Since its Launch in 1996, the IWF has dramatically reduced the volume of child abuse content hosted by UK websites. In 2003 criminal content known to the IWF stood at 1% compared to 18% in 1997 (IWF, 1996-2011). In 2007, the IWF’s annual report revealed they were aware of 2755 publicly available websites not hosted in the UK that were displaying child abuse images (IWF, 2008)

Case Study: Operation Ore

One of the largest and most controversial UK investigations into online child abuse occurred in 1999 and resulted in the arrest of over 3700 men in the UK for online child abuse offences (Hirsch, et al., 2010). The ramifications of this investigation are still ongoing today and heralds the need for those involved in Child abuse detection and prosecution to ensure technological advances and considerations are at fundamental to the enquiry in order to reflect that the evidence is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), which preceded CEOP ran an enquiry termed as Operation Ore and was the upshot of an existing investigation into online child pornography in the United States knows as Operation Avalanche. Operation Avalanche was an investigation involving a married couple from Dallas, Texas in April 1999. Thomas and Janice Reedy had amassed a personal fortune by creating a network of websites trading as Landslide productions, which enabled users to subscribe to access predominantly adult porn sites. Within the website there was an opportunity to access child abuse images. Although Thomas Reedy had not created, uploaded or hosted the images or websites, he had facilitated others to use the Landslide website as a portal to child pornography websites based in other countries. On their arrest, US police officers discovered a list of 300,000 credit card holders from 60 countries who had subscribed to the Landslide website (CBC News, 2003). On receipt of this list, the US police authorities informed the UK police that within those credit card numbers found, approximately 7000 of those were UK based and proceeded to provide the UK police force with the names of those involved (BBC, 2002) .

On the substantiation of the credit card details provided by the US authorities, the UK police began the largest investigation into online child abuse offences ever witnessed in the UK. Of the 7000 names exchanged, it is estimated that more than 2600 of those have been convicted of child abuse offences (Wardrop, 2009) and all of those cautioned and convicted have been placed on the sex offenders register (The Yorkshire Post, 2009).

Operation Avalanche was heralded as a triumph in the fight against child abuse crimes in the United States. The US investigation was commended for the professional manner in which it handled the operation. Of the 35,000 suspected offenders, following meticulous investigations, 144 homes were searched and 100 people arrested (Campbell, 2005). In the UK, all of the names on the list were immediately placed on the sex offenders register before investigations had been completed (The Yorkshire Post, 2009).

CEOP who took over the investigation from the NCIS also judge the ongoing operation to be a complete success having cautioned or convicted 2600 offenders (Laville, 2009).

The Operation Ore investigation is not without controversy. Many believe that the basis for prosecution was solely placed on the credit card details passed to UK authorities with little thought given to the actuality that subscribers may not have consciously accessed the links directing them to child abuse images or knew the website presented such a service. As the website was predominantly directed at adult pornography, the vast majority users would have admitted to paying for adult services.

The names of those alleged offenders were also leaked to a national newspaper, the Sunday Times, (Cullen, 2003) and included professionals and high profile names from the music industry of which many were publicly named causing widespread distress. This in turn also victimised those on the list before they had the opportunity to defend themselves. It is estimated that over 30 of those accused of viewing child abuse images have committed suicide in the wake of Operation Ore (Oates, 2006). Gibraltar based Forces Commodore, David White, was suspended of his duties and took his own life in 2005 having been investigated under Operation Ore. At the inquest, the Ministry of Defence police has written to the Navy to confer there was “no substantive evidence” (Herbert, 2005) to prove that Commodore White had partaken in any of the crimes he was accused of.

An additional concern of the enquiry was that no consideration had been given to the possibility of credit card identity theft. One such instance of this was the case of Consultant Dr Paul Grout who was under investigation and in April 2004 successfully proved his innocence in Hull Crown Court. Dr Grout had paid for a restaurant meal in the UK by the means of his credit card; his details had been fraudulently stolen and had fallen into the hands of a user in the United States (Leppard, 2005).

In a recent case not under the remit of Operation Ore, a man was acquitted of downloading child pornography at Southwark Crown Court in October 2010 and awarded £180,000 in damages after his PC had been affected by a virus. In the process of the investigation the accused, Chris Singam, had been originally investigated by the Fraud squad rather than specialists in online child sex abuse crime. Mr Singam had been found not guilty based on the evidence of a computer specialist who provided technical evidence to prove that the computers in his office had been attacked by a virus and he had not intentionally download illegal images (Welham, 2010). In the process of the investigation, Mr Singam’s business had collapsed and he had been ostracised by the local community (Shorter, 2010).

Although these cases should not reflect away from the successful convictions for these offences, Operation Ore has exposed the human effects of those involved in Child abuse investigations. The effects on family life and career progression will have far reaching consequences even if the accused is found not guilty. An expert witness, Duncan Campbell, who gave evidence in one of the many Operation Ore investigations, reflects on the stigma attached to individuals in these cases and argues that internet users in such cases can become the victims through a “combination of technical naivety and fear” (Campbell, 2005).

It is also clear that technology raises many issues than is evident in offline child abuse cases. Establishing guilt through a user’s PC or mobile phone records may prove difficult. Although technology can provide the trails of data evidence, it cannot necessarily prove the activity was paved through the actions of the accused. That will require the use of highly trained specialists to work alongside traditional policing methods to successfully prove liability.


Undoubtedly the Internet has given those who partake in online child sex abuse, a gateway to view pornographic images and an effortless passage through social networking sites and messenger services the potential to sexually abuse children offline. Keeping safe 99% of children in the UK between the ages of 8 and 17 years old with internet access is a colossal task.

In view of the rise in internet service and the number of children using the internet, it is evident that the Government through legislation and policing, alongside the internet industry, educational and charitable organisations are proactively working to make the internet a safer place. Revisions of outdated Acts of Parliament are enabling the courts to prosecute offenders under new laws as technology increasingly plays its role in crime. However, technology moves faster than legislation and the Law may not be prepared for technological advances.

Educating children and parents through online safety campaigns such as the thinkuknow campaign will alert users not only to the dangers of internet use and will empower them to report suspected crimes making the internet a safer place for others. This could be improved further by television campaigns to reach a wider audience.

Dedicated UK specialist organisations such as CEOP and the IWF are working in collaboration with national, European and International organisations to pool data resources as networks of internet crimes operate on a global level. This can only benefit the fight against child online abuse as networks cover global areas. However, there is not a global strategy or organisation in which all countries participate. The Virtual Global taskforce could extend to include other countries in order to be truly international.

And finally, Operation Ore reminds us of the emotive nature of involvement in Child abuse cases whether on or offline. Although a large number of offenders were successfully and rightly prosecuted under this investigation, large numbers of those have been left with a lifelong stigma which surrounds this type of offence due to flaws in technical evidence.

The need for highly specialised experts is paramount to ensure not only the safety of children on the internet but to bring offenders to justice for their crimes and to protect those not guilty of these crimes from persecution.


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