The US Saw a Spike in Child Sexual Abuse URLs in 2021

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Every year the number of photos and videos containing child sexual abuse found online increases—and 2021 was no exception. Investigators discovered record amounts of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) last year, new figures reveal.

Data from UK child safety nonprofit the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) shows 252,194 URLs containing child sexual abuse imagery in the last 12 months. That’s up 64 percent from 2020. As well as record overall numbers, the charity found a significant uptick in the amount of CSAM hosted in the United States. Chris Hughes, the director of the IWF’s hotline, says the organization responds to reports of CSAM online and also proactively uses technology to hunt down abusive content. Most of the photos the IWF finds are on image-hosting websites, where people can upload content to share.

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Since 2016, the Netherlands has hosted more abuse material than any other country the IWF has analyzed. (It is home to one of the world’s largest internet exchanges). Last year, the Netherlands had 102,676 confirmed reports of CSAM, 41 percent of everything the IWF found. This is a drop from 2020’s figures, but it coincided with a spike in US-linked reports.

The IWF traced 52,774 URLs containing CSAM to the US last year, which makes up 21 percent of URLs it recorded and puts the country in second place in the IWF’s charts. In 2020, it found 8,257 URLs hosted in the US. Hughes says the shift happened as image-hosting websites changed their geographical hosts to avoid being taken offline.

“A number of these image hosts and forum sites have moved out of the Netherlands,” Hughes says. “That handful of sites—and there’s two in particular that I can think of that have moved to the US—are now driving up our statistics for US-based content.” He refuses to name the sites as it would draw more attention to them.

Websites that host CSAM are constantly moving around to avoid detection, Hughes says. One site, he claims, has moved host 10 times this year alone. It has been hosted in France, Latvia, Moldova, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, the UK, and the US. It can be easier for websites to “hide in plain sight” when moving to a country with lots of internet hosting, Hughes says.

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“We have seen a steep decline in the material [in] the last year,” says Asda Gerkens, the chief executive of Dutch child protection group EOKM. “This is not a good thing. A lot of the websites have moved to countries where there is no hotline or any other method to ask them to take down the material.” In the Netherlands, Gerkens says, 95 percent of abuse material is removed within 24 hours of being discovered.

While the IWF’s 2021 figures show a geographical shift, they’re only one snapshot of what’s being found online. The true scale of CSAM online is unclear. In part, record numbers are being found each year as tech companies and child safety organizations are getting better at detecting it.

“There is a global increase in incidents,” says John Shehan, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a US-based nonprofit child safety organization. By law, tech companies in the US—from Facebook and Google to GitHub and Giphy—are required to report any CSAM they find on their systems. Last year, more than 200 companies made 29 million reports of abuse material, according to figures reported to NCMEC. “That was an increase of about 35 percent compared to the year prior,” Shehan says. These reports contained 39 million images and 44 million videos, he adds.

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