It's not a Numbers Game

Last Wednesday Newsnight broadcast a highly critical item which focused on the activities of British policing. It centred on the number of sexually abused children who had been identified from illegal images circulating on the internet

Newsnight is the doyen of UK TV current affairs programmes. It goes out late every evening, Monday to Friday. If the nation's rulers and opinion formers are still awake and watching this will be part of their staple fare. It's important.

Last Wednesday Newsnight broadcast a highly critical item which focused on the activities of British policing. It centred on the number of sexually abused children who had been identified from illegal images circulating on the internet. Identified in this context normally means located in real life and removed from harm's way.

Jeremy Paxman introduced the story referring to a "glaring failure" on the part of UK law enforcement. We were later told the police had "a chaotic system" and were "failing to co-ordinate victim identification". Britain is "slipping down the international league table". The implication was that children in the UK remained in danger longer than they need to because of bureaucratic incompetence among the boys and girls in blue.

The film that formed the core of the generous nine minute slot was made and presented by an ex-Surrey police officer. There is no doubt it succeeded brilliantly in drawing attention to the challenges of finding victims where the only available evidence is a picture or a video. If work in the area gets a boost because of it, in the great scheme of things it will be all to the good. Regrettably, however, the analysis presented was over simplistic to the point of being misleading and the core proposition was inaccurate. Questions have also been raised about ethics.

There are a lot of hurt feelings around. People who feel their work has been devalued or slighted. If that was all, maybe we could just breathe a sigh of regret, shrug our shoulders, move quickly on and suggest a course of counselling for everyone. But by conveying such a misleading picture the much greater worry is that the public's confidence in the police's ability to deal with crimes of this kind will be unjustifiably undermined. This could inhibit some from coming forward with evidence of past or future crimes in this area. "What's the point? They're all useless". You can almost hear it. Alternatively Government Ministers will start jumping around aiming at the wrong target.

The report began at Interpol's global HQ in Lyon, France. The influential Crimes Against Children team maintains the International Child Exploitation Image Database. Interpol also keeps a running total of victims from the database who have been located in real life. This is what Newsnight zoomed in on.

Records started being kept in 2001. As at 1st July, 2011 the USA was miles ahead of everyone. At 839 the US accounted for over a third of all the children ever identified anywhere in the world. Next on the list but still a long way off was Canada at 220 identified victims, Germany came in third at 170, Sweden 152, Norway 132, France 103.

The UK showed up 7th with 98, not a million miles away from Holland at 85 and Australia with 73. Belgium and Switzerland respectively had 33 and 32. Altogether 41 individual countries feature on the list. Incidentally, taking UN membership as the baseline, that means over 150 nations did not. In some ways that's a more worrying statistic although of course among the 150 will be a high proportion of countries where the level of take up of the internet remains quite low.

Using Interpol's numbers the reporter then went freelance. He decided to construct a league table. This is where it gets tricky. To make proper comparisons you have to put like up against like. You also have to know what the comparison truly reveals. If I tell you I play soccer and I scored three goals every weekend in April that might sound brilliant. Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals altogether in the same month. Does this mean I am a better footballer? Sadly no. I was playing in the Hackney Under-5s League and Cristiano wasn't.

However, the single adjustment made to Interpol's numbers by the programme was by reference to the size of the population in each country. This changed the rankings dramatically. Norway emerges in first place having identified 33 children per million of population. Sweden comes next with 15 per million of population, Canada 6, Holland 5. Australia, Denmark and Belgium all cluster around 3+, the USA, Switzerland and Germany are at 2+. At 1.5 the UK drops to 11th or thereabouts.

Assuming for the moment this sort of comparison or league table could tell us something useful, would adjusting for population size be the sole correction that needed to be made?

What about timeframe? The database may have commenced in 2001, but not every country started participating in its attendant processes straight away. In particular the US was late climbing on board because Federal law placed a number of obstacles in the way which took some time to overcome. The position of the USA is therefore the one most likely to have been significantly understated. Equally is it possible that some countries notched up large numbers in 2002 but have done little or nothing since? Knowing how things are now might be more important than knowing how things were nine years ago.

Some countries submit pictures to Interpol showing children being sexually abused even if there is no evidence of the image ever having gone on to the internet. Typically these images will be seized following a raid on a family home and the images may well be of children living at that address. Thus you get the images and the victims in one hit.

It is definitely a good thing that Interpol is provided with such images because they clearly could end up on the internet at some point. But to the best of my knowledge many countries, including the UK, do not forward such pictures if there is no known internet link. Maybe in future they should do.

A related point concerns other kinds of reporting requirements. In some countries every police agency is required to report certain kinds of crimes to a focal point. But if the police in Perthshire or West Yorkshire crack one of these cases, other than recording it in the official crime statistics they do not have to report it to anyone else, much less to Interpol. Again maybe that should change.

Collegiality? Around the world the police officers who work in this area are a fairly tight knit community. They co-operate extensively all of the time.

A number of policing units are known to help with the analysis and location of victims without any reference to whether or not the child might be in their own territory, whereas others with fewer resources may only really be able to engage if there are strong grounds for believing a particular child is one of theirs.

Similarly some forces could spend hundreds of hours working their way into a network, finding a single child in their own jurisdiction but end up handing out intelligence packets leading to the identification of large numbers of children in other countries. They have done all of the heavy lifting but the rescued children will not show up in their numbers.

A single action could result in twenty or more children being identified and made safe, whereas another complex, difficult or time-consuming case might have resulted in two being rescued. There is nothing inherently or necessarily better or more efficient about one investigation rather than the other. The way cases land on police officers' desks and get taken up can be quite random. They will rarely know in advance how many children are involved until they are a long way in.

And finally there is the question of definitions. Different countries use different language and concepts although in practice Interpol takes care of this by standardising the images they include in their database.

Numbers alone rarely tell the whole story. As we have seen, statistics can conceal more than they reveal. In nine minutes it is hard to bring forth subtleties, or fill out context. For this very reason it was doubly unfortunate that the BBC cancelled a planned live studio appearance by Peter Davies, the new Chief Executive of the UK's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). CEOP is the national police-led agency for dealing with crimes against children on the internet. Davies's interview was going to run immediately after the film was shown. No doubt it would have illuminated matters for us. It didn't happen.

OK. It was a busy evening for news. Yet another astonishing series of revelations had emerged from the phone hacking saga that currently grips the nation's chatterati. Might it not have been better therefore to pull the film and show it on another night when a studio discussion could have been arranged? The film had clearly been some time in the making. Holding it over for a day or so would hardly have risked another channel beating them to a scoop.

Above all the denouement was the most baffling. It was by now obvious, but Newsnight told us again anyway, that British policing is "not doing very well." Why? How do we explain our relative decline? Seemingly it is because we have no national database of child abuse material which can help co-ordinate police action across the country and speed up the process of locating children. If that were true it would be shameful. But it isn't true. We have Childbase. Read about it here.

I have no doubt there have been issues with keeping Childbase up to date. Relationships between CEOP and other policing units at home and abroad have not always been plain sailing although that tends to impact at a rather rarefied level. I would be surprised if the infantry let it get in the way of their daily work.

If Childbase no longer meets the needs of the moment it should be scrapped, but denying its existence, not even mentioning it is bizarre. If Childbase is to be replaced, solid systems need to be put in place so that relevant personnel throughout the UK routinely use it and think they own it as much as anyone else does.

CEOP must continue to see itself, amongst many other things, as a cog in the global wheel that is Interpol. No need to labour the point. The internet demands nothing less.

Cometh the hour cometh the person, or in this case the two persons. CEOP's new chief has no great personal investment in the past. He is well placed to build bridges to the future. At the other end of that bridge Interpol provides a solid foundation for what is, in the short term at least, an ever growing volume of work.

As Africa starts to come online in a big way, as more of Latin America and parts of Asia begin to replicate usage patterns similar to those we already have in the developed world more child abuse material is likely to start to wash up on all of our virtual shores. The need for closer and better co-operation across the globe speaks for itself. Mick Moran, the Co-ordinator of Interpol's Crimes Against Children Unit is a big man with a bigger heart. With a few more like him dotted about the place this problem can be cracked.


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