Millions of files being reviewed to identify victims of child sexual abuse

Child_Exploitation

Editor's note: Audio from AFP Commander Hilda Sirec is available via Hightail

AFP and state police identification specialists are reviewing almost 4 million files seized from alleged sex offenders in a bid to identify and rescue children.

The intensive and meticulous process, which began at the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) in November 2021, is being steered by the ACCCE, AFP, Queensland Police Service and South Australia Police.

The 3.75 million files were among the collections of child abuse offenders, seized by investigators during search warrants carried out as part of child protection investigations.

Some of the content is described by investigators as "horrific".

Of the 3.75 million files analysed, almost 5000 child abuse files were identified and uploaded to the INTERPOL International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) database, resulting in the addition of 40 new series of child abuse victims to the law enforcement database.

The material was referred to law enforcement agencies in 13 countries.

These additions will alert law enforcement in the 64 ICSE-connected countries to the new material and facilitate global collaboration, focused on identifying those children in the images, wherever they are in the world.

Child protection investigators are warning of an increasing number of children worldwide being coerced into sexual acts by online offenders.

ACCCE victim identification specialist Detective Sergeant Svetlana Palmer said the vast majority of the 5000 files uploaded to ICSE were self-produced by children.

"We are no longer seeing child abuse material only being produced by offenders with direct access to children," Detective Sergeant Palmer said.

"Child victims are increasingly producing child abuse material themselves and in some instances being extorted to produce more.

"Self-produced child abuse material is preventable, but to stop it we need parents and guardians to have open and honest conversations with their kids about the very real dangers that exist online.

"Children need to know that help is available and by reporting what has happened to the police, they can help us to catch an offender and prevent other children being harmed."

Capping is the coercion of children into sexual acts that are captured on camera and is a growing form of online child sexual abuse, with children being preyed on across all social media and video streaming platforms.

Many child victims initially believe they are interacting with a boy or girl of a similar age and may share explicit material, not realising their intimate acts are being recorded and circulated online, making them victims of child sexual exploitation.

Capping usually involves the grooming and sexual coercion of children and has been linked to the rise in child self-produced material. Capping can also involve offenders using recorded videos or images supplied by the child to sexually extort victims into producing even more graphic content.

Queensland Police Service victim identification specialist Scott Anderson, a member of Argos embedded at the ACCCE, works in the team that monitors online abuse forums to identify victims and offenders.

"These offenders are highly manipulative and in extreme cases, have tricked children into performing sexual acts on camera within 10 minutes of contacting them through a video streaming platform," Mr Anderson said.

"It's important to remember that social media platforms do not have any built-in protection mechanisms to prevent predators engaging with children, which is why it's so important to talk to children about capping."

Detective Brevet Sergeant Stephen Hegarty from South Australia Police said examination of seized files from arrested offenders clearly identified a significant issue with the ever-increasing self-production of material by children of all ages.

"There is a normalisation of sexual behaviour that is also changing young people's attitudes towards sharing explicit content with each other," he said.

"This timeline is evidence of the fact that many children are accessing the internet at a young age, often unsupervised and spending long hours using electronic devices in isolation.

"Unfortunately this is an increasing issue for the community."

Some of the AFP's top tips to keep children safe include having the privacy settings of their social media account set to 'friends only' or 'private' to ensure they are not contacted by someone wanting to do them harm, and turning off any location settings that could show where they go to school or where they live.

Parents should also encourage children not to share any personal information with 'friends' they meet online.

The guide can be found on the ThinkUKnow website.

The AFP's ThinkUKnow online child safety program is focused on preventing online child sexual exploitation. For more information visit the ThinkUKnow website.

The ACCCE is committed to stopping child exploitation and abuse and is at the centre of a collaborative national approach to combatting organised child abuse.

The Centre is a Commonwealth Government initiative that brings together specialist expertise and skills from all state and territory police in a central hub, supporting investigations into child sexual abuse and developing prevention strategies focused on creating a safer online environment.

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.

Research conducted by the ACCCE in 2020 revealed only about half of parents talked to their children about online safety.

Fifty per cent of parents don't know what to do to keep their kids safe online. Just 3 per cent of parents are concerned about online grooming. And sadly, most believe online child sexual exploitation is too repulsive to even think about.

A podcast launched last year by the ACCCE 'Closing The Net' is working to change that, showcasing that knowledge is power and that our only chance to help prevent this issue is if we bring a 'whole-of-community' response.

The podcast series offers valuable tips and advice on how to keep kids safe online.

It has recorded more than 75,000 downloads and trended number one on Australian documentary podcasts, highlighting the demand for information and resources to help protect kids when they're online. Listen to the Closing the Net podcast on your favourite streaming platform.

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.

Media enquiries

AFP Media: (02) 5126 9297

If it doesn't add up, speak up. Call the National Security Hotline - 1800 123 400.

Read the AFP Annual Report 2021-22

Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation - visit website

Policing and community news from the AFP