AFP to target child sex predators sharing abuse material
Child sex predators coaching pedophiles on the dark web how to abuse children will be targeted by Australian Federal Police as new laws bolster investigators' powers to identify offenders.
Today, the AFP is sending a new and clear warning to offenders: the AFP will within weeks seek to use new powers under the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Act 2021. It will now be harder for perpetrators to hide on the dark web and other forums.
Child sex abuse literature - which attempts to normalise and encourage offending, and tries to teach predators how to evade law enforcement - has been circulating on the dark web for more than a decade.
While sophisticated grooming manuals are regularly monitored by the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, the AFP could not previously take down the material from the dark web.
The anonymising features of the dark web also made it hard for law enforcement to identify users reading and sharing the literature, which the AFP describes as abhorrent and disturbing.
When offenders were found to have electronic copies of the literature, the majority of the time they also had other child exploitation material, such as thousands of images and videos of children being sexually abused.
Under the new legislation, coupled with other powers available to law enforcement, the AFP will be able to remove child abuse manuals and other illegal content from the dark web.
The AFP will be relentless in using the law and its powers to remove child sex abuse material and unlawful content from the dark web and other forums, however, it is unlikely law enforcement will be able to eliminate all of it. New child exploitation material is continuously being produced and circulated, and older material is still being shared.
The new legislation includes new warrants and avenues to help identify offenders.
Account Takeover Warrants could be used to help the AFP identify who is distributing child sex abuse material and deprive that account holder of access to that account. It will allow the AFP to assume an offender's identity to engage and identify other offenders.
The Account Takeover Warrant will enable the AFP to take control of an online account, which can be done by changing the password to an account.
The AFP must first apply, and then be issued, an Account Takeover Warrant. That warrant must be issued by a magistrate.
A magistrate must consider different factors before granting a warrant to ensure the AFP's actions are justified. For example, the magistrate must consider:
- The nature and gravity of the alleged offences;
- Any alternative ways for the AFP to obtain the evidence; and
- The extent to which AFP taking control of the account is likely to cause a person to suffer any temporary loss of money, digital currency or property.
Data Disruption Warrants could give the AFP the ability to remove some offending material from online forums.
A Data Disruption Warrant allows the AFP to add, copy, alter and delete data in computers in order to frustrate serious criminal offences occurring online.
The AFP can only do this if authorised by a warrant obtained from an eligible federal judge or nominated Administrative Appeals Tribunal member.
These two warrants, with other powers, make it easier for the AFP to identify individuals who are producing and sharing child exploitation material, to arrest those alleged offenders and to remove the unlawful material from the dark web and other forums.
The AFP can only obtain these warrants if it meets the strict criteria in the legislation, including that it concerns a Commonwealth offence with a penalty of at least three years' imprisonment.
In addition, the nature and gravity of the offence must be considered. Child sex offences can carry a sentence of life imprisonment.
There are provisions in Commonwealth legislation that prevent the AFP from confirming the details of warrants used, until they are lawfully disclosed in open court.
During the past financial year, the AFP and its partners have charged 235 people with 2772 child-abuse related offences.
AFP Assistant Commissioner Northern Command Lesa Gale said it was important for parents and the community to know that child sex offenders would go to great lengths to find victims and evade law enforcement.
"Every day, our investigators and our partners, doggedly pursue offenders who target our children, or share images and videos of children being sexually abused,'' Assistant Commissioners Gale said.
"The AFP will use these new laws, technology and investigators' dedication to bring these perpetrators to justice.
"The new warrants will give the AFP new avenues to help identify offenders who distribute, and in some cases, pay to watch children being abused.
"As a nation, we need to work together to help keep our kids safe and free from trauma. They are our future and we need to protect them from perpetrators who are becoming more brazen in their offending."
Lack of account takeover power prevents AFP charging offender with suspected full scope of abusive offending
In 2020, the AFP, with state police, executed a search warrant at the home of a man suspected of distributing images of himself abusing three children. He was allegedly distributing images on a mobile messaging application.
The alleged offender was arrested and charged with 177 child sex offences.
On the night of his arrest, investigators sought consent to take over his mobile messaging application to help identify others who were viewing the child abuse material. The alleged offender refused.
Subsequent analysis of the mobile messaging application's chat logs identified a large number of chats between the offender and other users, in which they received and transmitted child abuse material.
The material transmitted included live child abuse videos sent at the request of another user. Investigators are in the process of collating and disseminating referrals for local and foreign law enforcement in relation to these chats and the associated child exploitation material.
However, many offenders have been unable to be identified because of their use of virtual private networks, which provides anonymity.
If investigators had been able to take over and utilise the alleged offender's account on the night of his arrest, there would have been greater scope to identify associated users involved in the production and dissemination of the child abuse material.
It is likely some of these offenders and victims could have been identified in a more timely manner.
Members of the public who have any information about people involved in child abuse and exploitation are urged to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or report online.
If you or someone you know are impacted by child sexual abuse and online exploitation there are support services available.
Advice and support for parents and carers about how they can help protection children online can be found at ThinkUKnow, an AFP-led education program designed to prevent online child sexual exploitation.
Note to media:
Use of term 'CHILD ABUSE' MATERIAL NOT 'CHILD PORNOGRAPHY'
The correct legal term is Child Abuse Material – the move to this wording was among amendments to Commonwealth legislation in 2019 to more accurately reflect the gravity of the crimes and the harm inflicted on victims.
Use of the phrase "child pornography" is inaccurate and benefits child sex abusers because it:
- indicates legitimacy and compliance on the part of the victim and therefore legality on the part of the abuser; and
- conjures images of children posing in 'provocative' positions, rather than suffering horrific abuse.
Every photograph or video captures an actual situation where a child has been abused.
AFP Media: (02) 5126 9297