N8 Academics and Regional Police Collaborate on Research Ideas to Address Online Child Sexual Exploitation

Emma Barrett is Professor of Psychology, Security and Trust at the University of Manchester and Deborah Oakes is Detective Chief Inspector, Public Protection Specialist Protective Services in Greater Manchester Police. In this article they outline a workshop held in January 2019, organised by Greater Manchester Police and University of Manchester, focusing on the problems of and responses to Online Child Sexual Exploitation.

Online Child Sexual Exploitation (OCSE) is a high priority for national and local government, police, and security agencies and raises significant challenges for prevention, detection, investigation, and prosecution. The scale of OCSE is significant and growing (Barnados, 2015; Internet Watch Foundation, 2018), and the rapid development of new technologies means that the nature of OCSE is also changing.

A recent example is the adoption of online video live-streaming for abuse and exploitation. Children are persuaded or coerced into engaging in sexual behaviour or are sexually abused in front of a webcam, with footage live-streamed over the internet to offenders who view and sometimes direct abuse. The abuse is often recorded, and images captured, with both being widely redistributed online, potentially in perpetuity. Initially, sexual activity may be low-level, “self-generated” but offenders rapidly groom and manipulate their victims into more explicit activity. Such coercion can be via threats (blackmail) but is commonly via rewards (gifts or “likes”).

How can law enforcement agencies respond to such crimes? Detecting when material is being distributed – particularly when it is live-streamed – poses significant technical challenges, and the sheer scale of activity demands effective triage and prioritisation. Prosecuting online offenders is also problematic, particularly when their identity and physical location may be impossible to determine. Intervening to help prevent children engaging in risky behaviour raises its own set of issues. Understanding online norms when it comes to relationship development and sexual behaviour online is essential to helping children keep themselves safe.

These are some of the challenges that we set out to explore in a one-day workshop organised by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and University of Manchester, attended by more than 40 people. Participants included N8 Policing Research Partnership (N8 PRP) academics from various disciplines including psychology, sociology, computer science, and linguistics. Officers and staff from GMP, the National Crime Agency, and GCHQ contributed their perspectives on detection and investigation Representatives from charities working with OCSE victims and offenders, and from Manchester City Council also attended.

In our initial series of discussions, participants generated more than 70 ‘critical questions’. Some were focused on enhancing understanding of offenders and offender behaviours, for instance:

  • For offenders who produce and/or consume OCSE, is there a criminal career pathway (or set of pathways) that might provide points for intervention?
  • What helps people desist from offending? What can we learn from desistance from other harmful behaviours, e.g. coming off drugs?

Many of the other questions were around helping children who become victims, such as:

  • How can we encourage and support children to come forward when they have become victims of sexual exploitation online?
  • To what extent are the intervention strategies and support mechanisms for victims the same regardless of whether their abuse has been perpetrated online or in person?

A further set of questions focused on investigative challenges, including:

  • How do we standardise and share data across multiple agencies for more efficient and effective investigation?
  • What education and training do frontline personnel need and how should it be delivered?
  • How do we support investigators and analysts exposed to disturbing and potentially traumatic material?

Finally, participants identified questions relevant to businesses that develop apps and other platforms that could be exploited by offenders (e.g., chat apps marketed to children), for example:

  • How can businesses be encouraged (forced?) to adopt measures to protect children?
  • Age verification: how can we automatically detect underage users in online platforms?

During the afternoon, participants focused in on a subset of these questions and started to develop project proposals. Each group included academics and practitioners working collaboratively. One group scoped a project to better understand victim decision-making in relation to a grooming approach. This project could explore whether some children and young people are more at risk than others and identify features that affect whether a victim will move from initial chat to sexual activity in front of a webcam. A second proposed project was centred around understanding how and why the Crown Prosecution Service made decisions about the quality of evidence presented in a case and whether to take forward a prosecution.

Another group suggested a project on the pathways to offending, which would involve interviews of convicted offenders and case file analysis to better understand motivations and decision making of OCSE offenders, including how their interest in OCSE material develops and the nature and timing of opportunities to offend.

A fourth group proposed using linguistic and text analysis techniques for bulk analysis of textual data to develop techniques to enhance judgements about risk posed by consumers of OCSE material. A fifth group also suggested a project on risk assessment, taking a broader perspective and including how to define and identify risk at the earliest point, via quantitative analysis of case files and qualitative interviews with subject matter experts.

Researchers said that talking with practitioners gave them new insight to the extent and nature of OCSE. Many of the problems identified by the practitioners were ones that researchers had not previously considered, but in discussion they started to realise how and where their expertise could be of value. And practitioners welcomed the opportunity to discuss where research could help them, as well as the chance to network with representatives from different law enforcement / security agencies present.

Many of these projects have progressed since the workshop, and several academics have now visited law enforcement teams to explore these topics in more detail. When new funding opportunities arise we are now in a much better position to pull together strong, collaborative proposals for research that we know will make a difference to reducing harm from OCSE.

We know many from the N8 PRP community were interested but could not attend the workshop. We hope to run another event later this year and would be delighted to hear from others working in relevant areas. Get in touch via digitalfutures@manchester.ac.uk or emma.barrett@manchester.ac.uk

Palmer, T (2015) Digital dangers. The impact of technology on the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people. Barnardo’s.

Internet Watch Foundation (2018) Trends in Online Child Sexual Exploitation: Examining the Distribution of Captures of Live-streamed Child Sexual Abuse. Internet Watch Foundation.

Leave a Comment