The online sharing of child abuse imagery, known in the legislation as “child pornography”, is skyrocketing, with a 174 per cent increase in reports between 2017 and 2018.
According to the latest report from Hotline.ie, an online reporting tool funded by the Irish internet industry and overseen by the Department of Justice, there was a record 12,113 reports of allegedly illegal content in 2018, up from 7,591 in 2017.
Of these, Hotline analysts classified 1,437 as genuine reports of child abuse content being posted online, a 174 per cent increase from the previous year when there were 524 confirmed reports.
Twenty-three, or 1.6 per cent, of these cases related to abuse images hosted in Ireland. They were all hosted on a single site and have since been removed. In the past this figure has never exceeded four.
The Netherlands was the biggest host of illegal content accessed in Ireland, with 38 per cent of images traced to that country. It was followed by the US which hosted 31 per cent.
Each report of illegal content could represent hundreds or even thousands of images and videos, the report states.
“For the first time in 20 years, Hotline.ie received over 10,000 publicly sourced reports in a year which is a 334 per cent increase from the annual average 2000-2017.”
The figures reflect trends seen elsewhere. In 2013 there were 116 prosecutions for possession of “child pornography” in Irish courts, a figure which tripled to 392 in 2018.
Seventy-seven per cent of the imagery showed children aged between four and 12, while 6 per cent depicted children younger than three.
Six per cent of images depicted the most extreme form of abuse on a five level scale, namely “sadistic sexual torture” and bestiality involving children.
“Level four” abuse made up the bulk of the images (47 per cent). These depicted “penetrative sexual activity between adults and children”.
“Images of children 10 years and younger most often depict them being abused through sexual assault and extreme sexual assaults (bondage, torture and other degrading acts, etc); while images of children over 11 years of age most often depict explicit sexual posing or explicit sexual activity of a child ie masturbation,” the organisation stated.
Internet forums were the most common method for sharing child abuse imagery, accounting for 35 per cent of reports. They were followed by image hosting sites (24 per cent) and cyberlockers (17 per cent).
Social media such as Facebook or Twitter accounted for 1 per cent of reports. Hotline noted increasing amounts of imagery (11 per cent in 2018) being hosted on "disguised websites". These are websites, often depicting legal adult pornography, which display illegal content to users if a specific "digital pathway" is followed.
The growing use of disguised websites is symptomatic of the increasingly sophisticated methods being employed by paedophiles online to avoid detection. Complex encryptions and password-protected image dumps, are becoming more common, experts believe.
All child abuse content was passed to the Paedophile Investigation Unit of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau and to Interpol in the hope of identifying both victims and offenders, Hotline said.
The increasing number of tip-offs and the stricter requirements on internet service providers to report illegal content abuse to the authorities is impacting on attempts by the Garda to clear the current backlog of cases requiring forensic examination of computers.
Last week The Irish Times reported that online child abuse cases take an average of five years between investigation and sentencing due in large part to pressures on the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau.
The current maximum wait for the forensic examination of a device for child abuse imagery is two and a half years.