Social media companies have played a central role in the latest round of garda searches targeting the possession of child pornography.
The second phase of “Operation Ketch” took place this week targeting 31 private addresses, following 38 properties in the first phase last February.
An international police operation, it targets individuals suspected of possessing, importing and distributing various pornographic material including images and videos.
Children were found to be living in a number of the homes searched in recent days and Tusla, the child and family agency, has been contacted in each case.
"They are made fully aware of the circumstances of each search so as to ensure that if there are any children involved in terms of children living in a premises where a person is engaged in this type of activity, that appropriate action will be taken," Assistant Commissioner John O'Driscoll told The Irish Times.
“It is important to emphasise that...what we are investigating today is people accessing pornographic material. We haven’t identified any person that we believe has engaged in any physical harm.”
At one address, gardaí discovered child sex dolls, the first seizure of its kind at an Irish property although similar objects have previously been intercepted by Revenue officials on their way into the country.
No arrests have yet been made following this week's operation, executed between Monday and Thursday, but the searches are only the beginning of the investigation. Interviews will follow and seized material will be examined by the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau.
The duration of an investigation can depend on how forthcoming a suspect is in questioning and on how much material needs to be examined. Where admissions are made, files are forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
A garda online child protection team attempts to identify children in the various material but to date none have been found to be resident in Ireland.
Social media companies
Mr O’Driscoll, the head of the Garda’s special crime operations, said information garnered from social media companies led directly to 20 per cent of the recent searches.
“We certainly consider those entities to be significant stakeholders and maybe to have a capacity in a number of regards - firstly clearly in telling us where they observe suspicious activity but also in blocking access to the type of images involved,” he said.
The searches were carried out in accordance with the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act by Divisional Protection Service Units (DPSUs) and local detective units. They covered every region of the country.
Mr O’Driscoll said the ongoing nature of the problem was illustrated by the number of addresses on which search warrants were executed only months after the first phase.
“While clearly it’s important that we engage in initiatives like this and it highlights the extent of the problem, the one thing that we cannot do is change the fact that there are people who are of a mindset that they wish to observe this type of imagery, and that is a problem for society on a wider basis,” he said.
In February’s operation, two of the suspects were juveniles. A third suspect has recently been charged. In total, seven people made admissions regarding online activity.
In one case, gardaí seized two terabytes of material amounting to over 1,000 hours of child abuse video.
Mr O’Driscoll said the recession had hampered the ability to deal with cyber crimes but this had now been addressed.
“We expect, maybe as soon as the end of this year, to have eliminated all cases, or dealt with all cases, that are two years or older,” he said.