LONDON - A dramatic surge in the number of online child sex abuse images uncovered in Britain has stoked fears about the growing sexual exploitation and enslavement of children worldwide via technology, anti-slavery campaigners said on Monday.
Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said it had received more than 82,000 referrals of child sex abuse images last year — up 700 percent from 2012.
At least 80,000 people in Britain are estimated to pose a sexual threat to children online, and a rising number are taking advantage of technology — from using the dark web to end-to-end encryption — to evade detection, say the police and government.
Rights groups say the threat is global, with more and more children being groomed, abused over live streams and sold for sex — often via social media and listings websites — for ever-cheaper prices in countries from India to the United States.
“These latest figures from the NCA should be a wake-up call in highlighting how serious the problem of online sexual exploitation of children is,” said David Westlake, head of the anti-slavery charity International Justice Mission UK.
“It’s a deeply disturbing global crime that often preys upon very young children,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While demand for child sex images largely comes from Western nations such as Britain and Australia, children are often abused in countries like the Philippines where growing access to cheap internet and technology is fueling the crime, Westlake added.
More than 130 suspects — including an ex-police officer, a children’s entertainer, and five teachers — were arrested in a recent week-long crackdown on online child sex offenders in Britain, while 165 children were saved from harm, said the NCA.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of sophisticated offenders using the dark web to groom and harm children on the mainstream internet,” said Rob Jones, a director at the NCA.
British Home Secretary Sajid Javid urged tech giants and web companies to work more closely with law enforcement and monitor and remove child sex abuse material from their platforms, or face new laws that could see them prosecuted.
Online child sex abuse and trafficking is tough to tackle because the crimes transcend borders, with limited coordination between countries, while abusers use the latest technologies to adapt and stay a step ahead of law enforcement, experts say. “The government must urgently set clear legal standards for social media and web platforms, and hold companies to account if they fail to protect children from online abuse,” said Bharti Patel, the head of child anti-trafficking charity ECPAT UK.
While there is no data on the scale of online child sexual exploitation globally, the United Nations estimates at least 1.8 million children are trafficked into the sex trade every year.