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50% rise in reports of online child sexual abuse material during lockdown

There has been a 50% rise in reports of child sexual abuse material online from members of the public during lockdown, according to the Internet Watch Foundation.

The IWF received 44,809 reports from members of the public between March 23 and July 9 this year, compared to 29,698 reports in the same period in 2019 – meaning there has been an increase of about 50% while the UK was under lockdown.

Susie Hargreaves, Chief Executive of the IWF paid tribute to analysts, saying they had responded to the “unique challenge” of working under lockdown. “We’ve seen a lot more people spending longer at home and online – and more of them have stumbled across criminal material.”

“Some of the worst abuse is shared by criminals on the open web – and if it wasn’t for the hard work of our hotline analysts, who assess and take action against this content, there would be a lot more of it out there,” she added.

Of the imagery reported by the public, 5,367 reported URLs were found to contain images or videos of children suffering sexual abuse and were actioned by the IWF. During the same period in 2019, the IWF actioned 3,252 reports, an increase of 65%.

In March, the rise in reports from the public was particularly noticeable with 11,689 public reports at the start of the UK lockdown. A heightened level of public reporting has been noted in each subsequent month. In May, the IWF received 41% more public reports, and in June they received 80% more public reports than in June 2019.

At the beginning of the lockdown period, the IWF warned of the possibility that more online predators, as well as more children, may be spending longer online.

Susie Hargreaves added: “Our fantastic team of analysts have been coming into the office throughout the pandemic. We’ve done everything we can to make it safe for them, and they in turn have been working incredibly hard amid the unique challenges posed by this lockdown period, to make the internet safer for everybody.

“We have seen a definite jump in reports from members of the public, and have been able to take action against more criminal material as a result. This shows people are keeping vigilant and are being watchful, and that we are all doing our bit to help keep our children safe,” she added.

In May, the IWF and industry partners announced it has successfully blocked and filtered at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse during a one-month period while the UK was locked down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Hargreaves said ministers and officials have been in close contact with the IWF and other organisations offering support during the pandemic, demonstrating the government’s commitment to the threats of child sexual abuse during the Covid-19 crisis.

Ms Hargreaves said, however, there need to be assurances on future funding for “essential” projects like UK Safer Internet Day, a vital day of campaigns and discussion which helps keep children safe online.

She said: “Fifty per cent of the UK Safer Internet Centre’s funding comes from the EU and is already match funded by industry. There are no assurances that the government will be able to pick that up following its future negotiations with the EU which are currently ongoing.”

Ms Hargreaves said this funding is worth £2.25 million pounds per year to the UK Safer Internet Centre and the three partners charities.

She added: “We want the government to commit to replacing the money we will lose as part of the UK leaving the European Union so that we can continue to keep children safe online.

“No one who voted for Brexit, voted for children to be less safe online. Without that money, Safer Internet Day will not run and, this year, Safer Internet Day reached 50% of all children in the UK.

“As lockdown has shown us, there has never been a more important time to keep children safe online and Safer Internet Day is key to ensuring that happens. It is absolutely essential that we have some assurances in place that the UK Safer Internet Centre will be protected post European funding ending,” she concluded.

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