Child sexual abuse imagery: Online growth stretches NZ investigators

New Zealanders make at least 1000 attempts a day to access online images and video of children being sexually abused. The true number is probably much higher. David Fisher reports on the struggle to turn back the tide

He is probably Pakeha and in a relationship. He is most likely university educated, with a higher than average IQ.

Aged between 25 and 50, he is unlikely to have a criminal record. He is probably a heavy internet user and tech savvy.

And he is trying to access images and video of children being sexually abused.

Somewhere in New Zealand, he will click on a link that – if he’s not careful, if he’s unlucky – could set in chain events that will lead to his downfall.

That click sends a signal across the internet, reaching for the image or video he has selected and drawing it back to New Zealand. Much of the internet travels through the United States, where that single click is most likely to trip wires intended to catch men like him.

There are at least 1000 attempts each day like this in New Zealand, and many more that travel the internet’s secret routes designed to tunnel under the tripwires.

If his click is intercepted, it will almost certainly be by a US tech company compelled by law to report every instance of possible child sexual abuse material to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The NCMEC acts as a clearinghouse for the world, identifying children at immediate risk and sending leads to the country best-placed to investigate. In 2013, it received half a million reports. In 2019, that had grown to 17 million.

Among those, a solitary click from New Zealand is bundled together with others and sent back around the world to the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) in Wellington. In 2019 we received 3379 tips like this. And that’s where it gets complicated.

NZ's tri-agency approach

In New Zealand, we have three separate agencies that investigate and prosecute online child sexual exploitation.

There is the DIA, where just shy of 12 staff (11.875 full-time equivalent staff) triage theNCMEC’s CyberTipline reports to New Zealand. It will investigate and prosecute some.

Others are sent to Customs, which has 14 staff, or the police’s OCEANZ (Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand) team, which has 11 specialist staff. Alongside the NCMEC reports, each team generates its own work. Investigators across the agencies cooperate daily, and through the tri-agency Taskforce Ruru, despite being spread across a range of locations.

It’s a structure that is “far from ideal”, according to ECPAT Child Alert director Eleanor Parkes. While she is enthusiastic about the work done by committed and hard-working staff, she says there is so much more that could be done in an area that has struggled for years to receive attention or resourcing.

In contrast, as the problem has grown in scale and sophistication, our Five Eyes partners have developed “centres of excellence” to consolidate expertise.

ECPAT Child Alert – the non-government agency named for its goal to End Child Prostitution and Trafficking – backs the enforcement and prosecution efforts of the tri-agency effort but says it doesn’t keep pace with the scale of the problem.

“Right now we see a small handful of staff from Customs, DIA and NZ Police stretched across all of the abuse that exists on the dark web, so of course they have to prioritise.”

'Tip of the iceberg'

Data gathered by the Herald shows DIA, Customs and Police prosecuted between 80 and 100 people a year from 2017 to 2019 on charges relating to possession of child sexual abuse material. The near 100 per cent conviction record relies as much on a quirk of the offending type as anything – those accused tend to plead guilty quickly to avoid a public trial and, in some cases, to avoid having investigators dig deeper into encrypted material.

Parkes said the number of convictions was “just tapping the very tip of the sexual exploitation iceberg in New Zealand”. It’s a view also held by Customs, with a briefing from the agency saying “it is likely that there are a vast number of people who are not being prosecuted”.

United Kingdom research from 2012, if extrapolated to New Zealand, suggested there would be about 4000 people here who accessed sexually exploitative material involving children.

That’s nine years ago – since then, the numbers of those accessing such imagery has exploded. In 2018, New Zealand’s attorney-general David Parker and then-justice minister Andrew Little were told during a Five Eyes meeting that the problem had grown twenty-fold in five years.

DIA records show the country’s voluntary filter system – subscribed to by most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) – detects about 1000 attempts a day to access child sexual abuse material. It doesn’t pick up those operating invisibly on the dark web, hiding behind encryption or using untraceable private networks.

No national strategy

Again unlike our Five Eyes partners, New Zealand does not have a national strategy to deal with the issue. Parkes: “If we had a national plan of action then we might see more collaboration with other government agencies and better resourcing.”

The issue is one in which simply adding staff numbers is not enough although, says one investigator who has worked in one of the agencies, it would definitely help: “One hundred FTEs [full-time employees]” based centrally “would not be unreasonable.”

A more effective solution was mooted by Customs officer Kesta Dennison in 2018, speaking to a United Nations conference in South Korea.

She spoke of a combination of education, enforcement, governance and leadership – essentially closely stitching together efforts across government agencies, countries, technology companies and non-government organisations.

While Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti has detailed to the Herald the international agreements to which New Zealand is a member, it appears to be a patchwork. The Herald discovered those links do not include an information-sharing agreement with Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency. Europe is a world centre in trafficking of child sexual abuse material.

Discussions have been under way since 2019, when the European Commission pointed out that New Zealand was the only Five Eyes country not to have such an agreement, instead exchanging information through third parties like Interpol.

A briefing document to the European Commission said the lack of an agreement “limits the capacity of both sides to share valuable operational information and to engage systematically with each other”.

It’s an ambitious plan from a country with 35 people in three agencies working to catch at least 4000 offenders. It’s also difficult when the lead agency – DIA – operates as the “everything drawer” of government, with more than 50 distinct business units from Archives NZ to the Fire Service under its broad umbrella.

Former Internal Affairs minister Peter Dunne recalls occasional briefings on DIA’s efforts combating online child sex exploitation and discussion about better ways of organising New Zealand’s response. The tri-agency approach is, he says, “legislation legacy and bureaucratic legacy”, with DIA and its minister taking the lead “by default”.

A different approach

Chief Customs Officer Simon Peterson says the agencies involved constantly seek out better ways to collaborate, including internationally with enforcement agencies and the “centres of excellence”.

“That’s not to say there wouldn’t or shouldn’t be a more task-force approach [in New Zealand] in the future. That’s something that should always be considered and always be thought about but we’re not complaining the system we operate currently is so broken we need to fix it.

“We could co-locate. There would be definitely advantages to that and possibly disadvantages.”

At this point, though, he says “we need the tools and the legislative backing to deal with the problem differently”.

Peterson says there isn’t an “effective approach” to dealing with the unknown number of offenders.

“No one has enough resource to deal with that number of offenders. When we do find one, where we do manage to deal with one, we’re effective. The sheer volume of the crime type, it would be a little bit false to say we’re on top of it. I don’t think anyone in the world is.”

A solution was not to be found in enforcement, he says. “It needs to change at a much higher level than that and it needs to change internationally at a much higher level. There needs to be a different approach in legislation and via communities in general.”

Asked about a national strategy, Peterson said there was good cross-agency cooperation inside and outside New Zealand. “It would really help if there was a national strategy.”

DIA digital safety deputy director John Michael said investigators from the three agencies did “connect up physically when we need to”. “The resourcing we have at the moment and the collaboration we have gets us a really effective response in New Zealand.”

DIA is the lead agency of New Zealand’s response and, from that perspective, Michael confirmed there was no national strategy other than our adoption of a “Model National Strategy” developed by an international NGO for reference.

“The great thing about a national strategy”, he said, was it gave “clear direction, guidance and clear principles”. He believed this was being achieved without one.

Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti – also Minister for Women – said she was “proud” of and had confidence in the work done by enforcement officers. She said the creation of a “centre for excellence” hadn’t arisen and there had been no request for extra staff to grapple with the growing problem.

Asked why New Zealand did not have a strategy, Tinetti said: “Child sexual exploitation is a global issue that demands a global response.”

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