US saw spike in child sexual abuse URLs in 2021

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Every year The number of photos and videos containing scenes of child sexual abuse found on the Internet is increasing, and 2021 was no exception. Investigators uncovered a record number of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) last year, according to new data.

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Data from the UK-based child safety non-profit Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) shows 252,194 URLs containing images of child sexual abuse over the past 12 months. This is 64 percent more than in 2020. In addition to the record overall numbers, the charity has seen a significant increase in the number of CSAMs hosted in the United States. Chris Hughes, director of the IWF hotline, says the organization is responding to CSAM messages online as well as actively uses technology to find offensive content. Most of the photos IWF finds are on image hosting websites where people can upload content to share.

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Since 2016, more abusive material has been hosted in the Netherlands than in any other country analyzed by the IWF. (Here is one of world’s largest online exchanges). Last year, there were 102,676 confirmed CSAM reports in the Netherlands, which is 41 percent of what the IWF found. This is a drop from 2020 data, but it coincided with a sharp jump in US-related reports.

Last year, the IWF tracked 52,774 URLs containing CSAM in the US, representing 21 percent of registered URLs and placing the country in second place on the IWF charts. In 2020, 8,257 US-hosted URLs were discovered. Hughes says this happened when the websites hosting the images changed their geographic hosts to avoid going offline.

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“Some of these image hosts and forum sites have moved from the Netherlands,” says Hughes. “This handful of sites – and to my knowledge, two of them have moved to the US – are now increasing our stats for content from the US.” He refuses to name the sites as it would draw more attention to them.

Websites hosting CSAM are constantly moving to avoid detection, Hughes said. One site, he claims, changed hosts 10 times this year alone. It took place in France, Latvia, Moldova, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Great Britain and the USA. It may be easier for websites to “hide in plain sight” when moving to a country with more internet hosting, Hughes said.

“We are seeing a sharp decline in material [in] last year,” says Asda Gerkens, executive director of the Dutch child protection group EOKM. “That’s not a good thing. Many websites have moved to countries where there is no hotline or any other way to ask them to remove material.” In the Netherlands, Gerkens says 95 percent of offensive material is removed within 24 hours of being discovered.

While the IWF data for 2021 shows a geographic shift, this is just one snapshot of what can be found online. The true scope of CSAM online is unclear. Partially record-breaking numbers are found each year, as technology companies and child protection organizations getting better at detecting it.

“Incidents are on the rise around the world,” says John Shehan, vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), an American nonprofit for child safety. U.S. tech companies — from Facebook and Google to GitHub and Giphy — are required by law to report any CSAM they find on their systems. Last year, more than 200 companies filed 29 million reports of abuse. figures submitted to NCMEC. “That’s about 35 percent more than a year earlier,” Shehan says. Those reports contained 39 million images and 44 million videos, he adds.

NCMEC geographical breakdown shows the US as one of the largest places to report, with 716,474 reports made last year (compared to 494,388 in 2020) – but it is eclipsed by other peoples. Last year, over 4.6 million reports of child abuse were linked to India, and over 2 million reports were linked to both Pakistan and the Philippines. Many other countries had over a million reports.

The amount of child sexual abuse material found online could continue to grow in the coming years – both the EU and the UK plan to make it mandatory for companies actively look for offensive content. Although laws can be difficult to enforce. Plans may include more scanning people’s messages and may lead to further conflicts due to end-to-end encryptionwhich protects people’s privacy and security. As Apple learned last year while trying balancing tradeoffs is not easy.

Correction: A previous version of this article’s subtitle incorrectly reported the percentage of US CSAM hosting growth in 2021. We are sorry for the mistake.

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