The NSPCC sent out Freedom of Information requests to all 43 local police forces in England and Wales. Inter alia they asked how many indecent photographs of children (child abuse images), as defined by the Protection of Children Act, 1978, each of them had seized between March, 2010 and April 2012. Five forces replied: Cambridgeshire, Dyfed-Powys, Humberside, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. The number was 26 million. Based on mid-2010 population between them the five forces had 4,006,600 inhabitants. This represents 7.25% of the entire population of England and Wales.
It's hard to know why the 38 absentee forces did not reply so for now I'm going to assume the sample provided by the five that did is not significantly skewed one way or another. It understates the number of people who live in major conurbations but I don't think one's place of abode is going to be a major factor in determining the likelihood of one being involved in downloading child abuse images.
Anyway what we are trying to glimpse here, in a sense, is not what the police are doing but what the people living in their operational areas might be doing. What we know about the individuals who are arrested for child abuse image offences is that they come from all walks of life. Thus, assuming the demographics of the five forces' areas combined are not massively different from the demographics of the rest of England and Wales, and they aren't, I'd say we are good to go.
If you simply ramped up the number of seized images pro rata this would suggest that something like 360 million might have been seized overall across England and Wales in the two years in question. If you eliminate the two forces with the highest and the lowest number of images the population of the remaining three forces would be 2,130,300. That is 3.8% of the total population. They yielded 8,600,655 images to seizures by the police. This would imply a total of 226, 333,026 images being seized by all forces.
The Met, the police force for London, are known to do an enormous amount of work in this area but we don't have their numbers. If we assume the police in London only seized the same number of images as the best performer among the five, Cambridgeshire, you also come out with a number in the 200 millions so maybe that is nearer the mark.
What the numbers do not mean
Now at one level big numbers like these don't necessarily tell you anything very much. I have documented a case where one man was found with 2.5 million images. I'm told that in Cambridgeshire one of the people they arrested had five million images on his machines. In other words it is entirely possible that even if the number is as large as 350 million it could still represent the aggregated activity of a comparatively small number of people. We just have no way of knowing. Or do we? Read on.
But first let us be clear about another couple of things. Whether the number is 26 million, 200 million or 350 million that does not mean 26, 200 or 350 million children were abused to generate the illegal images. There will be tens upon tens of millions of duplicates of the same images.
These large numbers probably tell us something about the obsessive nature of some collectors' habits. They don't necessarily tell us how dangerous to children any individual collector is likely to be in the future. A person found in possession of one image could easily be as dangerous or even be more dangerous than someone found with millions of them.
However, I think there is a kind of macabre poetry in these mind-boggling figures. They definitely send out the message that something has changed within society, something big and bad has happened and I'm not sure we have properly come to terms with it.
Not long before the internet arrived in our midst Interpol claimed to know of only 4,000 unique images of child abuse across the entire planet. The UK police say they knew of 7,000. A few hundred children were depicted. That's in the whole of recorded history up to that point, about 1995. In Greater Manchester the police seized the grand total of 12 images that year.
Thus the sheer volume of child abuse images now in circulation, and the number of people involved in collecting them, has altered beyond all recognition. And let us not forget, to lapse into Rumsfeld-speak for a moment, so far this blog has based itself and used only numbers that we know or think we can estimate. The numbers we don't know about.......
A network of abuse
I now want to put another piece of the jigsaw in place. I said earlier we don't know how many people in total might be involved in collecting child abuse images. The number of people convicted or cautioned for image-related crimes in the UK has not yet exceeded 2,000 in any twelve months. Only 2,312 people were arrested for such offences last year and I think that might be the highest ever.
Now sit tight. Peter Davies, is the Head of CEOP, the UK's lead police agency for online child protection. Peter acknowledges for the first time in public something insiders have known for a while. The police have the technical capability to monitor the number of people exchanging child abuse images over Peer2Peer networks. And they have been using it. If you want to know more about how they do it watch Prime Time Investigates on Irish TV. We use the same techniques.
The British police revealed that their estimate of the number of people involved in exchanging child abuse images over Peer2Peer networks in the UK is
50,000 to 60,000
I do not know if the 50-60,000 number derives from only one Peer2Peer network or if it is culled from several. For the moment let's assume it is several, or even all of them though that is rather unlikely.
Seven times larger than Operation Ore
Think about that for a moment. Let's take the lower number and make 50,000 the baseline. As we have seen, we have yet to break the 2,000 barrier in terms of convictions in any year and the number of arrests is not much higher. And 50,000 is roughly 7 times larger than the 7,200 names that formed the basis of Operation Ore. Operation Ore nearly brought parts of our criminal justice system to a full stop. The arrests and prosecutions that were made under Ore were spread over the best part of three years and not everyone on the list of 7,200 received a knock on the door never mind got arrested. Not by a long chalk.
I have heard various estimates of how many Ore suspects were "unvisited". According to Ore's Wikipedia entry about 3,000 of the 7,200 Ore suspects never heard a dickie bird from the police. That is disputed in some quarters. The suggestion is "only" 2,000 suspects remained "unvisited". Nobody says the number was small. In other words between 60% and 70% of the suspects received a visit from the police. 30% to 40% did not.
Peter Davies reassures us the police are engaging in a range of operations to apprehend perpetrators involved with the exchange of child abuse images over Peer2Peer networks, and I know that is true, yet I picked up no sense whatsoever that our police service as a whole is equipped to tackle the problem on the scale suggested by CEOP's revelations. CEOP's staff resources are low and appear to be getting lower. It's the same with many local forces. I think a lot of people would take an enormous amount of convincing before they believed CEOP's transition into the new National Crime Agency is in any way going to compensate.
If it took the police the best part of three years to knock on the doors of the Ore suspects they decided deserved a visit, and upwards of 30% were never seen at all, what do we imagine is going to happen facing a number like 50,000?
None of this is the fault of the police. I believe the police have never been given the right level of resources to do the job that needs to be done. What I find slightly disappointing, though, is that the police service does not make more of a fuss about it. If a Cabinet Minister swears at one of the boys in blue it is headline news for days with the Police Federation calling for a resignation. Chronic under resourcing of child protection which leaves children at risk struggles to get air time. It's a funny old world.
It gets worse
Earlier this year at paragraph 20 of a CEOP Report the following statement appeared.
Around 55% of the people who view (child abuse images) go on to commit child abuse.
Of course viewing the images is itself a form of child abuse. What is being said here is that 55% of people who view child abuse images will commit a contact offence involving a child. Some very knowledgeable people in the child protection space dispute that number. They say it is way too high. That's as maybe. For now let's just accept that 55% reflects the police's own assessment of the situation.
In the 50,000 Peer2Peer users, if CEOP's analysis is to be believed, there could be up to 27,500 child abusers in amongst them. It beggars belief. And just to depress you thoroughly and put this in some sort of context, here's an interesting factoid. On 12th October, 2012, the operational capacity of the prison system in England and Wales was 91,000, and it was pretty much fully taken up. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. What would we do with 27,500 newly convicted child abusers? Could that daunting number be in any way influencing the police's or the CPS's operational policies or priorities?
As a society we are going to have to look again at the role of preventative measures. As police officers have repeatedly stated
We cannot arrest our way out of this
If it truly is beyond us to arrest these guys when they commit offences, what are we doing to divert them or help stop them getting involved with child abuse images in the first place? How much more do we need to do to reach out to children to help them resist abuse or report it as soon as it happens? How do we get major institutions to put in place better safeguarding measures? Shades of Jimmy Savile and his 40 year reign of abuse at once spring to mind.
Organizations like the NSPPC and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation have been speaking about this for years and have had woefully insufficient recognition and support from the authorities, local and national.
Improved technical measures are essential
Thanks to the IWF and the approach of the internet industry as a whole in relation to blocking access to Newsgroups and web sites containing child abuse images, that part of the challenge has been substantially dealt with. But as we have just seen we are nowhere near solving the problem of Peer2Peer networks. The IWF has no remit to tackle Peer2Peer. It is an altogether different kettle of fish. Improved technical measures will have to be part of the answer. To return to those haunting words
We cannot arrest our way out of this
Part of a new approach?
The Metropolitan Police confirmed that they had run a small experiment. During it, instead of going to arrest people whom they suspected of some level of involvement with child abuse images they sent them letters. Seemingly the letters did not renounce the possibility of police officers going to arrest the addressees at some later date. They were meant as a warning shot.
The Met did a risk assessment before they sent the letters to the individuals. The circumstances in which they were despatched appear to be quite limited. Only 11 letters went out and the experiment is now over. I believe two other local police forces elsewhere in the country are doing or have done the same thing, perhaps on a larger scale.
At first sight this practice will strike many as bizarre or dangerous or both. I don't think anyone should try to pretend or dignify it by saying it is the best possible outcome in the best of all possible worlds. This is a response by part of the police service to the overwhelming mismatch which exists between the level of resources available to them and the number of cases piling up. They are managing a crisis.
These crimes will only be solved, children rescued, perpetrators apprehended, through a combination of technology and people sitting at a desk looking at computer screens. This is not "visible policing" or "Bobbies on the Beat". Some of the victims or perpetrators that might have to be investigated or located may not even come from your police area! In some forces that alone can make a case fall to the bottom of the list.
Chief Constables do not get brownie points with the Home Secretary for delivering on online child protection. Online child protection, indeed child protection generally, is not a national policing priority against which a Chief Constable's performance is measured. It should be.
However, with the letter strategy, the Met seem to have concluded it is better to do something which might result in a person ceasing to engage in criminal activity than it is to do nothing in order to maintain the manifest pretence that they are on top of things, completely in control.
I have spoken about this issue to a number of professionals who work with child sex offenders with convictions for downloading child abuse images. They claim to be 100% certain that if some of the people they are now dealing with had at any stage received a letter of the kind I have just mentioned it would have given them such an almighty scare it would have instantly jolted them out of it. As a result fewer children would end up being abused to create images for them to consume, it would have pushed potential offenders away from a course of conduct which led them to engage in the hands on abuse of their own or other people's children.
I attended a meeting at Interpol's global HQ in Lyon not that long ago. I raised the question of these types of letters. The idea went down like a lead balloon. Some overseas police forces made clear that in their countries it would, in fact, be a crime to send an epistle of that sort. It would be tantamount to warning a possible criminal of a potential arrest, giving them an opportunity to abscond and destroy evidence.
I get that. I sympathise. Sending warning letters to potential suspects is used in other parts of policing so it is not a wholly unheard of notion, although I can see that when it comes to protecting children people will worry it is a step too far.
However, I do not sympathise with or get, in effect, deceiving the public into thinking all is well when it plainly isn't. Policing has to be about more than finding new and ingenious ways of managing an Inbox without alarming anyone. We're talking about children, not public relations.
The internet is not to blame for this state of affairs. People do bad things, not otherwise inanimate machines. But what undoubtedly is the case is that whatever we have all been trying up to now to deal with this problem it ain't working. Government, police, the internet industry, NGOs, must think again. Either we need to redefine the problem or we have to come up with new and convincing strategies for dealing with it as it is.