Child abusers are latching onto new methods to distribute paedophilic material online, according to an annual report by the Internet Watch Foundation.
The study, published on Monday, reports that paedophiles are ‘disguising’ websites to appear as if they host only legitimate content. However, if an internet user follows a particular digital path they will be able to view vile images and videos of children being sexually abused.
The technique, which has many legitimate applications, is also widely used by paedophiles. IWF experts encountered the tactic nearly 600 times last year. None of the websites in question were hosted in the UK.
Susie Hargreaves, IWF chief executive, explained: "We received reports to our Hotline by online users who have stumbled across these sites. They pose challenges because when the website is accessed directly, only legal content appears.
"However, the reports we receive by the public can be quite detailed and these reporters were sure of what they had seen. Our analysts investigated further and discovered a legitimate web development technique was being used to disguise the website from all those who had not followed a particular digital path to access it.
"Clearly, ordinary online users had still found this content and we’ve been working with analysts in our sister hotlines and with our members to tackle this issue.”
Child abuse portals are using the technique because it masks the true purpose of a site from those who have not followed the correct page path. Secondly, the approach allows commercial child sexual abuse peddlers to use services from legitimate hosting firms.
The IWF also reports that the hosting industry is getting faster at removing paedophile material from its networks. The tiny amount of abusive content hosted on UK networks is typically removed within 60 minutes of notification.
Two years ago the IWF challenged itself to speed up the removal of child sexual abuse content hosted outside the UK. Such content is more likely to feature younger children, and more likely to show the most depraved content featuring sexual activity between adults and children, rape and sexual torture.
Around half of all child sexual abuse images and videos hosted outside of the UK are removed within 10 days. In 2008 they typically stayed available for more than a month. The report shows that IWF members are able to remove child sexual abuse content around 40 per cent more quickly than non-members. In cases where child sexual abuse content is hosted by an IWF member, most (85 per cent) is removed within 10 days and almost all (95 per cent) is removed within 13 days.
Identifying new victims
IWF analysts are able to identify new images of sexual abuse and subsequently alert police to youngsters who may not be known to them but are potentially at immediate risk. Three children who were being sexually abused were rescued during 2011 thanks to information sharing between the IWF and the the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre.
One child was traced to Sweden, where she was being abused by a relative who subsequently uploaded images of the abuse online. Another two at-risk children were traced to addressees within the UK and also rescued from their abusers.
In total seven children have been rescued since information-sharing arrangements between the IWF and CEOP were put in place two years ago. ®