IWF has record month as reports of child sexual abuse surge
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) says the coronavirus lockdown has contributed to “accelerating numbers” of public reports of child sexual abuse to its hotline.
September saw the highest number of reports of suspected child sexual abuse material ever received in a single month by the IWF.
But IWF analysts warned that “false reports” could be hampering its efforts to keep the internet safe.
Figures just released show that in September the IWF processed 15,258 reports from members of the public. This is 45 per cent more than in September 2019, when 10,514 public reports were received.
This year to September the IWF has already processed a total of 230,520 reports, including tip-offs from members of the public, the police and internet providers. In 2019, itself a record year, IWF analysts processed 260,400 reports.
Hotline director Chris Hughes said the coronavirus lockdown and more people working from home have contributed to an acceleration in the increase of public reports.
“Public reporting has been going up year on year because of a combination of things, but it has definitely accelerated,” he said.
“More people spending longer at home, and more people being more active online may mean more people are spotting criminal content and calling it out.”
However, Mr Hughes said analysts’ time was being taken up dealing with “false” reports of material, which is off-remit for the IWF.
Overall public reporting accuracy has reduced from 35 per cent in January to 26 per cent in September, meaning analysts are dealing with thousands of reports that end up not being within the IWF’s remit.
Mr Hughes said: “Of the reports not actioned the bulk of these false or inaccurate reports featured content that is outside of the IWF remit.
“These included images containing potentially provocative slogans on children’s clothing, or reports of legal adult pornography.”
He added: “Over-reporting of otherwise legal content by members of the public and activist groups has led to analysts being less productive in the fight against child sexual abuse material due to the increased resource required to process inaccurate and off remit reports.”
The IWF is the UK-based charity responsible for finding and removing images and videos of children suffering sexual abuse from the internet.
Analysts at the IWF’s hotline then process these reports and assess them so criminal material can be quickly removed from the internet.
Susie Hargreaves, OBE, chief executive of the IWF, said the coronavirus pandemic has made this a “particularly busy” year for the IWF.
She said: “Our trained analysts view and assess some of the worst material on the internet, and this year we have had to adapt so they can keep coming to work safely.
“These numbers suggest people are being vigilant about what they see online, and are standing up to make the digital world a safer place to live and work in.
“This year has not been easy, but our team is so motivated, and know finding and removing these images is an important step in keeping the internet safe, and protecting children from harm.”
Ms Hargreaves said the increased reporting shows people are calling out criminal content when they see it. However, she is urging the public to carefully check the IWF’s reporting guidelines before filing a report as incorrect reports can take up a lot of analysts’ time.
“If people stumble across these images online, they need to know we are a safe place they can turn to. You can report anonymously to us and we will get material analysed and removed,” said Ms Hargreaves.
“What we can’t do is remove material that is not actually against the law or is outside our remit.
“Our analysts still have to look carefully at every single report we receive to make sure there is nothing criminal hidden in there and, if people are reporting inappropriate things to us, it wastes a lot of valuable time they could be spending finding and removing child sexual abuse material from the internet.”
Ms Hargreaves said people must report child sexual abuse, but need to check first to make sure what they are reporting is something the IWF can help with.
The IWF is part of the UK Safer Internet Centre, which, along with charities SWGfL and Childnet, works to deliver critical advice, resources, and interventions to help keep everyone, especially children and young people, safe online.
It says a ‘gold-standard’ welfare package is in place to look after the analysts’ mental health while performing their challenging role.