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Child Sexual Abuse, Up Nearly 145% in 1 Year

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2019/09/28 Headline: NYT (see below)
The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong? Up 145% since last year 
 
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Online predators create and share illegal material, which is increasingly cloaked by technology. Tech companies, the government, and the authorities are no match.
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Don’t let Apathy; a state of indifference or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation, or passion be your guide. (Wikipedia.org)
 

The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong? Up 145% since last year 

Online predators create and share illegal material, which is increasingly cloaked by technology. Tech companies, the government, and the authorities are no match.

The images are horrific. Children, some just 3 or 4 years old, being sexually abused and in some cases tortured.

Pictures of child sexual abuse have long been produced and shared to satisfy twisted adult obsessions. But it has never been like this: Technology companies reported a record 45 million online photos and videos of the abuse last year.

More than a decade ago, when the reported number was less than a million, the proliferation of the explicit imagery had already reached a crisis point. Tech companies, law enforcement agencies, and legislators in Washington responded, committing to new measures meant to rein in the scourge. Landmark legislation passed in 2008.

Yet the explosion in detected content kept growing — exponentially.

Exploited

Articles in this series examine the explosion in online photos and videos of children being sexually abused. They include graphic descriptions of some instances of the abuse.

An investigation by The New York Times found an insatiable criminal underworld that had exploited the flawed and insufficient efforts to contain it. As with hate speech and terrorist propaganda, many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it.

Law enforcement agencies devoted to the problem were left understaffed and underfunded, even as they were asked to handle far larger caseloads.

The Justice Department, given a major role by Congress, neglected even to write mandatory monitoring reports, nor did it appoint a senior executive-level official to lead a crackdown. And the group tasked with serving as a federal clearinghouse for the imagery — the go-between for the tech companies and the authorities — was ill-equipped for the expanding demands.

paper recently published in conjunction with that group, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, described a system at “a breaking point,” with reports of abusive images “exceeding the capabilities of independent clearinghouses and law enforcement to take action.” It suggested that future advancements in machine learning might be the only way to catch up with the criminals.

In 1998, there were over 3,000 reports of child sexual abuse imagery.

Just over a decade later, yearly reports soared past 100,000.

In 2014, that number surpassed 1 million for the first time.

Last year, there were 18.4 million, more than one-third of the total ever reported.

Those reports included over 45 million images and videos flagged as child sexual abuse.

By Rich Harris | Source: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

The Times reviewed over 10,000 pages of police and court documents; conducted software tests to assess the availability of the imagery through search engines; accompanied detectives on raids; and spoke with investigators, lawmakers, tech executives, and government officials. The reporting included conversations with an admitted pedophile who concealed his identity using encryption software and who runs a site that has hosted as many as 17,000 such images.

In interviews, victims across the United States described in heart-wrenching detail how their lives had been upended by the abuse. Children, raped by relatives and strangers alike, being told it was normal. Adults, now years removed from their abuse, still living in fear of being recognized from photos and videos on the internet. And parents of the abused, struggling to cope with the guilt of not having prevented it and their powerlessness over stopping its online spread.

Many of the survivors and their families said their view of humanity had been inextricably changed by the crimes themselves and the online demand for images of them.

“I don’t really know how to deal with it,” said one woman who, at age 11, had been filmed being sexually assaulted by her father. “You’re just trying to feel O.K. and not let something like this define your whole life. But the thing with the pictures is — that’s the thing that keeps this alive.”

The Times’s reporting revealed a problem global in scope — most of the images found last year were traced to other countries — but one firmly rooted in the United States because of the central role Silicon Valley has played in facilitating the imagery’s spread and in reporting it to the authorities.

While the material, commonly known as child pornography, predates the digital era, smartphone cameras, social media and cloud storage have allowed the images to multiply at an alarming rate. Both recirculated and new images occupy all corners of the internet, including a range of platforms as diverse as Facebook Messenger, Microsoft’s Bing search engine and the storage service Dropbox.

In a particularly disturbing trend, online groups are devoting themselves to sharing images of younger children and more extreme forms of abuse. The groups use encrypted technologies and the dark web, the vast underbelly of the internet, to teach pedophiles how to carry out the crimes and how to record and share images of the abuse worldwide. In some online forums, children are forced to hold up signs with the name of the group or other identifying information to prove the images are fresh.

To report online child sexual abuse, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.
 

With so many reports of the abuse coming their way, law enforcement agencies across the country said they were often besieged. Some have managed their online workload by focusing on imagery depicting the youngest victims.

“We go home and think, ‘Good grief, the fact that we have to prioritize by age is just really disturbing,’” said Detective Paula Meares, who has investigated child sex crimes for more than 10 years at the Los Angeles Police Department.

In some sense, increased detection of the spiraling problem is a sign of progress. Tech companies are legally required to report images of child abuse only when they discover them; they are not required to look for them.

After years of uneven monitoring of the material, several major tech companies, including Facebook and Google, stepped up surveillance of their platforms. In interviews, executives with some companies pointed to the voluntary monitoring and the spike in reports as indications of their commitment to addressing the problem.

But police records and emails, as well as interviews with nearly three dozen local, state and federal law enforcement officials, show that some tech companies still fall short. It can take weeks or months for them to respond to questions from the authorities if they respond at all. Sometimes they respond only to say they have no records, even for reports they initiated.

And when tech companies cooperate fully, encryption and anonymization can create digital hiding places for perpetrators. Facebook announced in March plans to encrypt Messenger, which last year was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of child sexual abuse material, according to people familiar with the reports. Reports to the authorities typically contain more than one image, and last year encompassed the record 45 million photos and videos, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

All the while, criminals continue to trade and stockpile caches of the material.

The law Congress passed in 2008 foresaw many of today’s problems, but The Times found that the federal government had not fulfilled major aspects of the legislation.

The Justice Department has produced just two of six required reports that are meant to compile data about internet crimes against children and set goals to eliminate them, and there has been a constant churn of short-term appointees leading the department’s efforts. The first person to hold the position, Francey Hakes, said it was clear from the outset that no one “felt like the position was as important as it was written by Congress to be.”

The federal government has also not lived up to the law’s funding goals, severely crippling efforts to stamp out the activity.

Congress has regularly allocated about half of the $60 million in yearly funding for state and local law enforcement efforts. Separately, the Department of Homeland Security this year diverted nearly $6 million from its cybercrimes units to immigration enforcement — depleting 40 percent of the units’ discretionary budget until the final month of the fiscal year.

Alicia Kozakiewicz, who was abducted by a man she had met on the internet when she was 13, said the lack of follow-through was disheartening. Now an advocate for laws preventing crimes against children, she had testified in support of the 2008 legislation.

 

Alicia Kozakiewicz was abducted as a child. Now, she works at the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, advocating laws to prevent abuse. Kholood Eid for The New York Times

“I remember looking around the room, and there wasn’t a dry eye,” said Ms. Kozakiewicz, 31, who had told of being chained, raped and beaten while her kidnapper live-streamed the abuse on the internet. “The federal bill passed, but it wasn’t funded. So it didn’t mean anything.”

Further impairing the federal response are shortcomings at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which reviews reports it receives and then distributes them to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as international partners.

The nonprofit center has relied in large measure on 20-year-old technology, has difficulty keeping experienced engineers on staff and, by its own reckoning, regards stopping the online distribution of photos and videos secondary to rescuing children.

“To be honest, it’s a resource and volume issue,” said John Shehan, a vice president at the center, which was established 35 years ago to track missing children. “First priority is making sure we’re assessing the risk of the children. We’re getting this information into the hands of law enforcement.”

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida who was an author of the 2008 law, said in an interview that she was unaware of the extent of the federal government’s failures. After being briefed on The Times’s findings, she sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting an accounting.

Stacie B. Harris, the Justice Department’s coordinator over the past year for combating child exploitation, said the problem was systemic, extending well beyond the department and her tenure there. “We are trying to play catch-up because we know that this is a huge, huge problem,” said Ms. Harris, an associate deputy attorney general.

The fallout for law enforcement, in some instances, has been crushing.

When reviewing tips from the national center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has narrowed its focus to images of infants and toddlers. And about one of every 10 agents in Homeland Security’s investigative section — which deals with all kinds of threats, including terrorism — is now assigned to child sexual exploitation cases.

“We could double our numbers and still be getting crushed,” said Jonathan Hendrix, a Homeland Security agent who investigates cases in Nashville.

The surge in criminal activity on the dark web accounted for only a fraction of the 18.4 million reports of abuse last year. That number originates almost entirely from tech companies based in the United States.

The 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. And while many companies have made recent progress in identifying the material, they were slow to respond.

Source: NYT 

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