Tech companies are reporting a boom in online photos and videos of children being sexually abused — a record 45 million illegal images were flagged last year  alone — exposing a system at a breaking point and unable to keep up with the perpetrators, an investigation by The New York Times found.
The spiraling activity can be attributed in part to a neglectful federal government, overwhelmed law enforcement agencies and struggling tech companies. And while global in scope, the problem is firmly rooted in the United States because of the role Silicon Valley plays in both the spread and detection of the material.
The NY Times reports that typing key words in search engines like Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, will give explicit child images as search results. The NY Times made use of photo recognition software on the various platforms and by doing that found out that in fact child porn is present on all social, cloud storage and search platforms. And these companies know this.
Law enforcement records shared with The Times show that Tumblr was one of the least cooperative companies. In one case, Tumblr alerted a person who had uploaded explicit images that the account had been referred to the authorities, a practice that a former employee told The Times was common for years. The tip allowed the man to destroy evidence, the police said.
While the problem predates the internet, smartphone cameras, social media and cloud storage have made it much worse. Before the digital age, offenders had to rely on having photographs developed and sending them through the postal system, but new technologies have lowered the barriers to creating, sharing and amassing the material, pushing it to unprecedented levels.
Tech companies can take months to respond to subpoenas or warrants. Police records and emails, as well as interviews with nearly three dozen law enforcement officials, show that some tech companies can take weeks or months to respond to questions from the authorities, if they respond at all. Encryption measures makes them even harder to police. Some do not retain essential information about what they find. A platform like Snapchat does not check their video content.
Facebook Messenger was responsible for nearly two-thirds of reports in 2018. Facebook has long known about abuse images on its platforms, including a video of a man sexually assaulting a 6-year-old that went viral last year on Messenger. As the technologies lower people’s inhibitions, online groups are sharing images of younger children and more extreme forms of abuse. “The internet has facilitated an exploding multibillion-dollar market for child pornography.” Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz
The US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that the number of reported illegal images as now reached 70 million per year – more than 190,000 photo’s per day – whereas 10 years ago the reported number of images was 600,000. The lack of man and machine power causes the situation to run even further out of control.
With so many reports of the images coming their way, police departments across the country are besieged. Some have managed their workload by focusing efforts on imagery depicting the youngest, most vulnerable victims. About one of every 10 agents in Homeland Security’s investigative section is assigned to child sexual exploitation cases, officials said, a clear indication of how big the problem is.
The FBI, Homeland Security, and LAPD report that they are thus overwhelmed with the amount of work that they have been forced to prioritize the investigation and pursuit of the abuse of babies and toddlers as the “most vulnerable” or the ” most serious abuse “. About 1 in 10 Homeland Security investigative agents is assigned to cases involving the sexual exploitation of children. The FBI also detects abuse via photo and film materials and in this way, for example, manages to bring fathers to justice who abuse their children and share the material via social media channels.
The photos of abused children continue to circulate and turn out to lead to hundreds of new convictions for possession of child abuse materials. The FBI is notifying known victims. or their parents if they are minors, when their photos are found in yet another new case. An abused child therefore has a life sentence, not only due to the traumatizing experiences, but also because of the photo and video material.
Gabriel Dance & Michael H. Keller for the New York Times / The Daily podcast “A Criminal Underworld of Child Abuse”
Note: as Knowledge Center for Transgenerational Organized Violence, we are interested in research such as that by the American FBI and LAPD in the Netherlands. If you are familiar with how research is conducted in the Netherlands into networks around child abuse and their victims through, for example, PhotoDNA and can share something about the investigations, we would like to hear from you.