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

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.

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