Images of children, as young as 3-year-old, are strewn across the internet. But not the fuzzy kinds we love to see, these are graphic images of sexual abuse torture and pedophilia and the numbers have only grown.
Ever since there was an Internet, there was a dark web, and according to this New York Times exclusive images of child pornography have only increased year on year.
In 2018, there were already 45 million sexually explicit photos and videos of child abuse, double from 2017.
The New York Times calls this moment a "crisis point," as the numbers are out of control despite efforts by law enforcement, policymakers and tech companies to curb the proliferation of these images.
Can The Good Guys Keep Up?
Women and minorities online know this only too well - that hate speech, abuse or sexually explicit photos even are common online as tech companies (like Twitter of Facebook) struggle to develop stringent anti-hate policies.
The internet is a fast-growing entity, and authorities are often understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with it. For example, in India cybersecurity laws are still in a very nascent stage, leaving many loopholes for deviant minds to exploit it at the expense of women and children especially.
In the NYT report, the journalists spoke to Stacie B. Harris, the justice Department’s coordinator over the past year for combating child exploitation.
"“We are trying to play catch-up because we know that this is a huge, huge problem,” "
Harris says the issue is systemic.
From protecting the children and getting them safe and rehabilitated to curbing the spread of images and punishing the abusers, there is a lot of work and few hands on deck.
The NYT report adds that although this a problem world over, a lot of images are rooted in the United States as the tech boom has been facilitated heavily by Silicon Valley.
In the US, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, described a system at “a breaking point,” with reports of abusive images “exceeding the capabilities of independent clearinghouses and law enforcement to take action.” Perhaps the only way forward was to train AI to keep up and outrun criminals - although there is a danger with any technology like this being adapted to the needs of the user.
Living with the Images: Abused Children Growing Up Feel Let-Down
The NYT has reported that many survivors struggle to live with the crime that happened to them, especially as the images live on. Being sexually assaulted as a child is traumatic enough, but knowing that nothing dies on the internet is an added trigger.
“I don’t really know how to deal with it,” said one woman who, at age 11, had been filmed being sexually assaulted by her father.
"“You’re just trying to feel okay and not let something like this define your whole life. But the thing with the pictures is — that’s the thing that keeps this alive.”" - Anonymous survivor of child sexual assault and child pornography
With advanced stroage options - from increased Cloud stroage to the drastic increase in smartphone availability, the dangers of these images finding new homes in the internet is alarming.
Online forums that are devoted to nurting these pedophiles and sharing tips on staying under the radar are increasing too.
A Heavy Toll: The Impact of Viewing Graphic, Horrific Images
With the dramatic increase in horrific photos online, what goes on in the mind of the those monitoring and reporting thousands of photos everyday?
“We go home and think, ‘Good grief, the fact that we have to prioritize by age is just really disturbing,’” said Detective Paula Meares to NYT. Meares has investigated child sex crimes for more than 10 years at the Los Angeles Police Department.
Authorities said that because of the surge of criminal content, they had the heartbreakingly difficult task of prioritising victims, looking for the youngest and most vulnerable first.
Tech companies are slow to respond, and often do not want to look as it is too hard to control and see the murky depths of humanity say workers at many of these companies.
While definitely too hard to look, the cost of not looking is literally the lives of the most vulnerable in society - young children.
The New York Times report suggested that this clear crisis may not be taken seriously enough as arrests have risen slightly but not in line with the surge in content. Meanwhile, federal funding has flatlined in the US.
Is the Tech Made to Help Victims?
Like with other forms of abuse, three is a huge lag between reporting and waiting for a response from tech companies.
Alicia Kozakiewicz was abducted as a child, according to the NYT report. AS an adult she now works at the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, advocating laws to prevent abuse. Her abuser live-streamer her rape and torture, but federal laws to punish and control this content were too slow to pass and had a severe lack of funding.
With new encryption policies, digging out the criminal content is even harder.
The anonymity offered by the sites emboldens members to post images of very young children being sexually abused, and in increasingly extreme and violent forms.
Sites like Tumblr apparently alert a user if he has been reported to authorities so that he is able to delete all content; apps like Snapchat do this themselves with their self-deleting technology. So keeping ahead of the tech is murky.
However, in response to added pressure, many major tech companies like Facebook and Google stepped up surveillance of their platforms.
For now, the crisis is only increasing and tech companies, policymakers and law enforcement agencies need to step up and also get the funding they deserve.
Child sexual exploitation online is a massive issue world over, and it needs more people worried enough to create change.
(With inputs from The New York Times)
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