More than 144,000 accessing child sex abuse images through dark web in Britain
National Crime Agency says Britain is in the grip of a ‘chronic and corrosive’ threat from serious crime
Tens of thousands of individuals accessing the most harmful categories of child abuse images through the dark web are in part fuelling the “truly staggering” level of serious and organised crime in the UK.
Top child abuse investigators have warned more than 144,000 web users in Britain are increasingly using the anonymisation technology to chase niche material while lowering the risk of detection.
Lynne Owens, director general of the National Crime Agency (NCA), said the scale of serious and organised crime in the UK posed a “chronic and corrosive” threat to the country.
She called for a £2.7bn investment from the government to tackle the swelling numbers of people involved in organises crime and online child abuse.
“Enhancing our capabilities is critical to our national security. If we don’t, the whole of UK law enforcement, and therefore the public, will feel the consequences,” Ms Owens added.
“Some will say we cannot afford to provide more investment, but I say we cannot afford not to.
“The organised criminals of today are indiscriminate – they care less about what types of crime they’re involved in, as long as it makes them a profit.
“These groups are preying on the most vulnerable in society, including young children and the elderly – those most unable to protect themselves.”
In its annual report on serious and organised crime released on Tuesday, the NCA said the majority of child sexual abuse material existed on the open web.
However, it said its own research had found almost 2.9 million individuals worldwide were now accessing the most harmful materials available through the dark web.
Meanwhile, the NCA also said it had seen a 700 per cent increase in the number of reports of online child abuse and exploitation it received from internet firms.
The report also noted the number of county line chains across the country had rocketed from 720 to around 2,000 in little over a year.
The agency also said fraud cases had risen by 32 per cent between April and September 2018, with 3.6 million incidents reported across England and Wales in 2018.
It estimated at least 181,000 people were involved in either organised crime or dark web-based child sexual abuse.
Although the NCA says reports it receives involve male runners between the ages of 15 and 17, it also believes the number of cases involving teenage girls and vulnerable adults are under-reported.
The agency has called on the government to make more funding available for tackling serious and organised crime, which it says should be used to fund digital forensics, covert surveillance and financial investigations.
“The NCA must deliver others on a national basis, providing the right agencies with the right capabilities at the right time to deliver maximum impact,” Ms Owens added.
“The choice is stark. Failing to invest will result in the gradual erosion of our capabilities and our ability to protect the public.”
Security minister Ben Wallace said, said serious and organised crime was estimated to cost the UK at least £37bn each year.
“As the National Crime Agency set out, serious and organised crime is a fast-evolving and highly complex threat to our national security, impacting on our people, on our communities and on our businesses across the country,” he added.
“Our SOC strategy published in November 2018 set out how we will mobilise the full force of the state to target and disrupt serious and organised crime.
“As criminals’ use of technology evolves, so must our response. We continue to invest in the right capabilities and tools in law enforcement, across government and in partnership with the private sector.”
An NSPCC spokesperson said: “These staggering figures show just what police are up against when it comes to fighting online child abuse. Officers need to have the right resources to rid the web of this terrible content.
“Child abuse and harmful content have spread through the dark web and social media platforms, so it’s key that government gets on the front foot of this problem and introduce a tough regulator to hold platforms to account.”