Criminals hide child abuse images behind legal porn sites

People viewing or searching for adult pornography online face the risk of being arrested for accessing child abuse images because paedophiles are increasingly hiding criminal content on legal commercial websites, the Internet Watch Foundation has warned.

The past 18 months have seen a significant rise in the use of disguised websites that provide a secret route to child sexual abuse content, said Fred Langford, chief executive of the UK charity.

The IWF uncovered 743 such websites in 2015, compared with 353 in 2013. Langford said they were using a new technique where only legal content was displayed if the site was accessed directly through a browser but illegal child abuse images were shown if a specific pathway of links was used.

He said: “It has really started to become an accepted practice for the commercial side of the paedophilic community because this obfuscation technique is more effective at keeping its content live for longer.”

The warning comes as the charity revealed that the number of child abuse images and videos it has removed from the internet rose fourfold in two years after it was allowed to proactively seek out criminal content.

Last year, the IWF found that 21% of the webpages containing illegal images and videos were commercial and those seeking to profit from the abuse were increasingly disguising it behind legal content, usually adult pornography.

Langford said the trend raised the risk that people searching for adult pornography could unwittingly access child abuse images on disguised websites.

“It’s extremely significant,” he said. “Some people may think they’re going to legal adult content but they unfortunately have picked up the cookies on the way that means that they are served the child sexual abuse material. There’s a huge risk there.”

Langford added that people who had only viewed legal content on disguised websites could also be targeted in police investigations because there would be record on their computer that they had visited the URL, and unless they still possessed downloaded images it would be difficult to determine what they accessed.

He said: “If somebody is arrested on suspicion of [accessing child abuse images], it makes it much more difficult for them to prove their innocence. Equally, it makes it much more difficult for the police to prove the guilt.”

Ch Supt Paul Sanford of Norfolk police said: It’s the case that offenders are using more and more sophisticated techniques to evade detection. But as they develop their techniques [the police] develop their response. In the past year we have significantly increased our enforcement around this kind of activity.”

The IWF said 68,092 reports of suspect online content were positively identified as containing illegal child sexual abuse imagery in 2015 and taken down.

This was a 417% increase in confirmed reports since 2013, when there were 13,182 confirmed reports of illegal content, and a 118% increase over the previous year, according to the charity’s annual report, published on Thursday.

The report found that 69% of victims were assessed to be aged 10 or younger, with 1,788 of those believed to be two or under. More than a third (34%) of the images were designated to be the most serious category A, meaning they involved the rape or sexual torture of children.

The charity also found that the number of child abuse webpages hidden in the dark net, which can only be accessed via the Tor browser rather than conventional browsers, has also risen, with 79 new services found last year, a rise of 55% on 2014.



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