The number of referrals from international police co-operation body Interpol to the Garda unit that investigates online child sex abuse material is “ever-growing”, a media briefing was told on Tuesday.
Self-generated images of a sexual nature of children under the age of 18 that are shared among partners or friends are ending up online and being commercially exploited worldwide, Supt Ian Lackey of the Garda National Protective Service Bureau told the briefing.
The electronic sharing of sexual images of people aged under 18 is a criminal offence, even when it is done by or with the consent of the person in the image. However, in most instances charges are not brought against “child suspects”, Supt Lackey said.
So far this year, the bureau has received about 40 notifications from Interpol concerning sexual images containing what are believed to be Irish children. Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) database monitors the global distribution of such imagery online. Referrals are up by almost 50 per cent on last year and are “ever-growing,” Supt Lackey said.
The notified images are usually of a female and were produced and shared voluntarily. However, they were then shared more widely or accessed by “scraping” and ended up being accessible online. Most often they were being commercially exploited, the briefing heard.
“The simple advice is don’t share anything,” Supt Lackey said. “Once the image is shared it is distributed. Unfortunately, these things go viral, or people can fall out.”
When families of victims and suspects find themselves being visited by gardaí investigating online child sexual exploitation material, the response is often “extreme shock, disappointment, and there is the whole aspect of the police being involved”.
A large proportion of the suspects are also juveniles and advice rather than prosecution is the usual outcome. The bureau has a duty of care towards the juveniles affected and works closely with Tusla, the child and family agency.
Supt Lackey said the bureau wanted to “highlight and discourage people who are thinking of distributing child sexual exploitation material”. The “exponential” growth in the workload of the bureau indicated the message was not getting through, he said.
In terms of child sexual material that was produced with a view to commercial exploitation, most is produced in Asia, the briefing was told.
The bureau is contacted by Interpol when IP addresses show that exploitative material is being viewed in this jurisdiction. Supt Lackey said there was no case being investigated at present where it was suspected that child sexual material was being produced in this jurisdiction for commercial purposes.
Since 2018, an intelligence-led drive called Operation Ketch has been targeting suspected possessors and distributors of online child sexual exploitation material in this jurisdiction.
Between November 28th and December 1st, the gardaí conducted ten searches in addresses in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Louth and Wicklow, as part of this ongoing operation. Devices were seized, and further searches are likely, and “hopefully arrests of a number of individuals” will follow, Supt Lackey said.
So far this year, the bureau’s Online Child Exploitation Unit, which co-ordinated the recent searches, has sent more than 700 investigation files to local Garda Divisional Protective Services Units for investigation.
Garda members have been receiving training from Interpol in relation to the ICSE database and An Garda Síochána has contributed material to the international resource.
“An Garda Síochána is working and will continue to work closely with all our international partners to target, disrupt and bring to justice anyone involved in the accessing, distribution and production of this criminal sexual abuse material,” Supt Lackey said.
The Interpol database holds more than 4.3 million images and videos and has helped identify more than 30,000 victims, and more than 13,000 offenders, worldwide. Sixty-eight countries are connected to the database and it contributes, on average, to seven victims being identified every day.
Gardaí investigating suspect material have to first satisfy themselves that the person in the material is most likely aged less than 18 years. The victims in the cases that are chosen for investigation are “generally far younger than 18, and some are very, very young,” Supt Lackey said.