Child sex offenders are grooming children for the purposes of online sexual abuse, with more using social media apps and smartphones, according to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre. Offenders may target hundreds of children at a time in order to satisfy their sexual fantasies and once initial contact is made, this often rapidly escalates into threats and intimidation. Children who are groomed into performing sexual activity online can feel ashamed, that they have lost control, desperate or even become suicidal.
Risk-taking by young people is the key factor in their vulnerability to grooming and potential contact with child sex offender. Adolescents who take risks online by having sexualised chats or exchanging sexual images are particularly prone to the increasingly sophisticated, coercive and sinister tactics of online predators.
Catching the sexual predator
CCL works with police forces and law enforcement agencies investigating digital crime. They are the largest digital forensics laboratory in the UK covering all aspects of digital crime.
"We work with the Child Protection Unit within the National Crime Agency. We do a significant amount of work in child sexual exploitation (CSE) for them specifically digital forensic analysis. We work tirelessly with our law enforcement and agency partners to tackle the most serious offenders to reduce the threat risk and harm to the most vulnerable in our society," says Andrew Krauze, CCL Chariman.
"The process starts with the law enforcement agencies conducting a search and seizure. They will seize all digital devices – phones, PCs, tablets, many of which are not obvious such as smart TVs, home heating systems etc. We then go through the process of carrying out a very detailed forensic analysis. The holy grail of digital forensics is finding deleted information – and we can retrieve that data."
It's a myth that all individuals involved in child sexual exploitation (CSE) are highly sophisticated computer users, who are one step ahead of the police. They use technology such as the Darknet and encrypted material, but they are not always sophisticated users of computers. "We are specialist digital forensic analysts. We are always technically more advanced, but have to continually develop new techniques and software to stay ahead of them. These people always leave some trace for us to identify and capitalise upon," explains Krauze.
"When you're looking at these people you tend to be looking at people who are tied into an organised network of like-minded individuals – the people who actually produce it, the people who distribute it and the end users. Some of these are huge criminal endeavours, quite a few are based offshore, producing fairly heinous material. But we are seeing it produced more and more in the UK and distributed in the UK.
On mobile phones and tablets, the challenge is different. "We have developed a lot of our own extraction products which are proprietary to us. We've developed a library of over 1,000 different software scripts which allows us to access data, which is unique to our laboratory."
Krauze reveals that it's an alarmingly high part of their work. "At the moment it's around 40%. We have 85 analysts, and 40 plus are working on these cases."
Smart phone ownership has increased by 21% among 12-15 year olds in just a year and six out of ten (62%) now have one. With built-in cameras, these devices and a new generation of apps are giving children the ability to easily communicate with strangers online and share images on the move. The Centre also knows that instant messaging on smart phones and other devices is a popular method of communicating and is used by groomers to approach potential victims. Instant messaging was used by offenders to make contact with children in around third of public reports of grooming in 2012/13.
According to the NSPCC, sexual abuse (including online sexual abuse) saw an increase of 8% from 2013-14. There were 1,145 public reports in 2012 relating to incidents of online grooming. 7% of these reports related to attempting to meet a child offline, a drop from 12% in 2011.
Peter Davies, Chief Executive at CEOP, said: "On a daily basis we see the devastation caused to young people's lives by online grooming.
"What we are seeing is that for a growing proportion of grooming cases reported to the Centre, online abuse is an end in itself. UK children can be targeted from anywhere and offenders will cast their net widely to target large numbers of children. Things can quickly spiral out of control for victims.
"Children may be targeted because of their vulnerability, but any child can be a victim. What is apparent is that parents' and carers' can make that vital difference in whether or not a child becomes a victim of these ruthless predators online."
Social media apps
There is a reported rise in the number of teenagers phoning the NSPCC's helpline with bad experiences after downloading apps like Grindr. One man said he had been "groomed" by a 24-year-old after going online aged 13, according to a Newsbeat report.
Around one in six of (17%) of the youngsters polled by CEOP reported using Tinder every day, with almost half of those (46%) aged 15 and under. The service was more popular among girls than boys, with one in five female respondents using it compared with 15% of males.
Tinder users are shown other subscribers close to their location and must both give a positive reaction and receive one back to start communicating. It is open to those who are 13 or older, with under-18s only able to match with people in the same age bracket. App designers say users must confirm they are of appropriate age - over 17.
Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, said: "It is very concerning to see the proportion of younger teens using apps like Tinder, whose aim is essentially hook-ups and dating, and very much for an adult audience.
"These apps also share location-based information and can be used as platforms for grooming and abuse."
On Snapchat, more than a third (37%) of children polled reported spending up to 10 hours on the app every day. Reports recently emerged that explicit images taken with the app were intercepted by a third party app and leaked online. Claire Lilly, safer internet lead at the NSPCC, said: "We are seeing a sharp rise in young people contacting ChildLine about being approached online, sending images to strangers or being exposed to online pornography. And a new generation of smart phone apps are presenting yet more problems."
There are concerned individuals who operate honeytrap stings to catch paedophiles like Dark Justice. However, the men involved with this group don't see themselves as vigilantes. "We consider ourselves freelance journalists," they said in an interview with the Sunday Times.
Many believe that there is not enough police monitoring of chatrooms. "There are far, far too few people from law enforcement online at any time. That's why paedophiles are confident they can infiltrate social media and not be captured – there is no active deterrent," says Jim Gamble (formerly of CEOP).
The National Crime Agency is aiming to safeguard children by developing a system that would alert them when they are being groomed by men posing as children on Facebook and other social networking sites. Software will scan for clues in the pattern of behaviour used by the groomers and raise the alarm with a traffic-light system.