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Big tech must be forced to tackle online child sexual exploitation and grooming

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new UK internet regulator

After years of rapid growth, major social media firms have seen their fortunes plummet over recent months, with both Twitter and Facebook suffering large slumps in their share prices after breaking out disappointing new user numbers over the summer. Whether or not privacy issues, the dissemination of fake news or accusations of political bias are turning users away from these platforms, it appears they are heading back down to earth at a fast pace. A major reason for their fall might have something to do with their almost maniacal pursuit of growth at all cost, regardless of the impact this might have on the wellbeing of their users. Just last month, Facebook co-founder Aaron Greenspan told the Telegraph that Mark Zuckerberg had designed the platform to be as addictive as possible, ignoring warnings that lives could be lost as a result of the way in which it is structured.

While it might be a little strong to suggest that Zuckerberg cares little as to whether lives are lost as a result his company’s activities, social media firms in general appear less than willing to invest in measures designed to protect their users from potentially harmful content. While spending billions of dollars on research and development each year in pursuit of the next big tech trend, these companies spend only a fraction of their huge profits on eradicating illegal content from their networks, be it related to drugs, weapons, people smuggling or child sexual exploitation.

Earlier this week, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid delivered a speech in which he told major tech firms such as Microsoft, Google and Twitter they must do more to tackle online child sexual exploitation and grooming, and that he would not be afraid to take action against them if they failed to do so. Noting how online paedophiles have become as determined as terrorists to cover their tracks online, Javid told an audience how predators in Western nations such as Britain are increasingly live-streaming child sex abuse shows for as little as £12 ($15.40), and that the gangs behind this growing industry are offering their customers the option to choose the hair colour and other characteristics of their victims. Javid said that while he has been impressed with the progress large technology firms have made in tackling terrorist material on their platforms, he now wants to see a similar level of commitment when it comes to child sexual exploitation. “I am not just asking for change, I am demanding it,” he said. “How far we legislate will be informed by the action and attitude that industry takes.”

While Javid’s intervention is certainly welcome, it remains to be seen as to whether big tech firms will do more than continue to pay lip service to eradicating child sexual exploitation material and grooming from their networks. Law enforcement agencies across the globe have been complaining about this issue for years, with very little being done on the part of these companies to solve the problem. The fact that surface web platforms are still being used by paedophiles should be a constant source of shame for big tech, which appears reluctant to allocate significant resources to tackling issue, perhaps due to the fact that doing so would not provide an attractive enough return on investment. This is in spite of the fact that evidence suggests the problem is getting worse rather than better.

In April, British child protection charity the NSPCC revealed that Facebook was the most popular platform for paedophiles looking to groom children online. The following month, a report from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works to remove indecent images of children from the web, revealed that minors as young as three were being coerced into live-streaming indecent images of themselves to online predatory paedophiles using social media platforms. In April of last year, a coalition of law enforcement agencies broke up a network of paedophiles involved in the distribution of child sexual exploitation material through dark web platforms and WhatsApp. Elsewhere, Twitter has been criticised for failing to close accounts belonging to self-confessed paedophiles who used their profiles to openly discuss their attraction to children. Many were found to be using profiles pictures that might appeal to youngsters.

While the problem of child sexual exploitation material and grooming on the internet is complex and will likely take some time to resolve, few outside of the industry would argue that big tech is currently doing enough to tackle the issue. While search giant Google unveiled a free artificial intelligence tool to help businesses and organisations identify indecent images of children on the internet after Javid delivered his speech, these types of efforts appear to be a low priority for companies that are in some cases worth more than nation states. The time for threats has passed. Developing technology to identify online groomers will be a major challenge, but lawmakers around the globe could make a start by fining tech firms that fail to take down child sexual exploitation material within hours of it going up, as has been suggested with terrorist content. The sad truth of the matter is that these companies will only allocate the resources required to tackle the problem if they face serious consequences for failing to do so.

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Kenya becomes first nation in Africa to join Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation database

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Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation database

Interpol has announced that Kenya has become the first African country to sign up to its International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) database, an investigative tool that allows police to share information on child abuse cases.

In a statement, the international law enforcement agency revealed that Kenya’s participation in the initiative brings the number of nations connected to the database to 60.

The tool allows investigators in connected countries to analyse and compare uploaded indecent images of children, helping police identify victims and the paedophiles who abuse them.

An investigation conducted by the Kenyan Police Service’s Child Online Cyber Centre in cooperation with Interpol last month resulted in the arrest of three suspected paedophiles in the greater Nairobi area.

The operation resulted in one child being removed from harm, and a number of indecent images and videos being uploaded to the ICSE database, providing material for a training session for specialised officers from Kenya’s Online Cyber Centre.

“The connection to ICSE is a vital step in being able to correspond with other countries on global cases,” Interpol said.

“Since connecting, Kenya has been an active user of the database, and has already provided expertise on African languages heard in videos submitted by other agencies, proving Kenya’s dedication to protecting children from harm both within its borders and abroad.”

According to Interpol, the ICSE database has led to the identification of 19,481 victims of child sexual exploitation across the globe since it was launched in 2009.

The database allows specialised officers to retrieve clues from uploaded mages, allowing them to link videos and pictures from multiple sources.

In August of last year, police in Spain arrested a paedophile and rescued five of his victims just six days after Australian investigators added a number of videos to the database.

Officers from Queensland’s Task Force Argos uploaded the material, which featured young girls aged between five and seven, after finding them on a paedophile site on the dark web.

After Interpol analysts established that the images may have been created in Spain, the country’s Central Cybercrime Unit pinpointed a neighbourhood near Madrid.

Examination of the hands of a man who appeared in some of the images led investigators to believe he may be a mechanic, narrowing the search to workshops in a specific area, and the eventual arrest of a 46-year-old Romanian national, who was identified thanks to a tattoo on his arm.

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EU gets new powers to hit international cyber hackers with sanctions

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hit international cyber hackers with sanctions

The EU is now able to hit international cyber criminals who pose a threat to member states with targeted sanctions as part of efforts to restrict hackers’ ability to knock out key infrastructure.

A new legal mechanism agreed this morning by the European Council can be used to target hackers regardless of where in the world they are based.

It provides the EU with the power to freeze assets held by such offenders in member states, and to prevent them from entering the 28-nation bloc.

The new framework can also be used to target any individuals who provide “financial, technical or material support for such attacks or who are involved in other ways”, the Council said in a statement issued this morning.

The new measures were signed off today in Brussels after the Netherlands and the UK lobbied for greater powers for members states to take swifter action against the originators of cyber attacks with the potential to bring down crucial national infrastructure, such as the May 2017 WannaCry ransomware outbreak.

Welcoming the introduction of the new sanctions regime, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commented: “This is decisive action to deter future cyber-attacks. For too long now, hostile actors have been threatening the EU’s security through disrupting critical infrastructure, attempts to undermine democracy and stealing commercial secrets and money running to billions of euros.

“We must now look to impose travel bans and asset freezes against those we know have been responsible for this.”

The new powers were passed into EU law after it was reported that an international coalition of law enforcement agencies had broken up a cyber crime network that used malware in an attempt to steal $100 million from more than 41,000 victims.

Members of the gang, which was made up of hackers who advertised their skills on internet forums, are said to have used the GozNym malware to gain access to victims’ online banking login credentials, before using these to gain unauthorised access to their online accounts to drain them of money.

The funds that were stolen would then be laundered using US and foreign beneficiary bank accounts controlled by gang members.

A criminal indictment has now been returned by a US federal grand jury in Pittsburgh charging 10 members of the network with a number of cyber crime-related offences.

US Attorney Scott Brady commented: “The collaborative and simultaneous prosecution of the members of the GozNym criminal conspiracy in four countries represents a paradigm shift in how we investigate and prosecute cyber crime.

“Cyber crime victimises people all over the world. This prosecution represents an international cooperative effort to bring cyber criminals to justice.”

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Spanish police warn ‘self-produced’ indecent images of children could fall into hands of online paedophiles

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‘self-produced’ indecent images

Police in Spain have launched a new operation intended to crack down on the distribution of self-generated indecent images of children.

The country’s national police force is targeting images that were self-produced by minors and published on social media platforms such as Instagram, Periscope, Twitter and YouTube.

Although investigators in Spain believe the majority of self-generated indecent images of children are posted by minors in a bid to attract more followers, it is suspected that in some cases the creators of such material are being contacted and encouraged by adult paedophiles.

Spanish officers said they are focusing on images featuring minors aged between two and 13, adding that the older of these children are publishing this type of material to increase their social media audience.

While police said images and videos featuring younger children had typically been innocently created by relatives of the minors in safe environments, the nature of the material made it likely that it could be shared by online paedophiles once it had been published on social media.

Policia Nacional said it launched an investigation after receiving information about indecent images of children originating from Spain from partner law enforcement agencies in the US, leading the force to identify 110 minors between the ages of two and 13 who featured in such content.

Parents of older children spoken to by police said that while they were aware that their offspring were using social media platforms, they had no idea they were posting indecent material on their channels.

Policia Nacional said that sharing indecent images online is always a mistake, and that doing so could result in sextortion attempts, online bullying, and pictures falling into the hands of online paedophiles.

“Parents should create a climate of trust with their children to deal with these issues and inform them of the risks and consequences of providing personal information or sending photographs and videos to other people, even if they are friends,” the force said.

Last month, the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works to remove child abuse images from the internet, revealed that more than a quarter (27%) of the content it assessed in the first six months of last year was “self-generated”, and predominantly involved girls aged between 11 and 13.

“This can have serious repercussions for young people and we take this trend very seriously,” the organisation said.

 

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