‘They know they are about to witness some of the most upsetting things ever uploaded onto the internet’.
On a cold morning, standing in a frosty car park on the outskirts of Cambridge, a figure in a winter coat is fumbling with a hot coffee and a key fob.
They’re ready for a day which they already know will see them make a real and positive difference to some of the most vulnerable and defenceless children in the world.
They also know they are about to witness some of the most appalling, most upsetting things ever uploaded onto the internet.
At the Internet Watch Foundation is a specialised taskforce unit which assesses and grades some of the worst child sexual abuse material in the world.
The people on this team view images from the UK Government’s Child Abuse Image Database (CAID). They are the only non-law-enforcement agency allowed to do this.
Once they have assessed them according to UK law, the images are hashed – a process which reduces them to a unique digital fingerprint used by tech companies and police all over the world – they can be blocked and removed rapidly, wherever criminals may attempt to share them.
All the IWF’s analysts and content assessors work from the office. The hotline is specifically set up as a secure and appropriate environment.
The taskforce team works part-time – and their exposure to the videos and images they are grading is strictly limited to four hours a day.
The team works with the IWF’s own breakthrough IntelliGrade hashing tool – meaning their work can have a real impact all over the globe.
When they arrive at the office, the team members take a few minutes to settle in and chat – to discuss Bake Off, or to catch up with each other.
Cambridge Graduate Alex*, 22, took the decision to join the taskforce straight out of university.
He said: “For someone on the outside, our job might seem quite repetitive. Image after image coming through. There is no escaping it. We go through the images one by one, or sometimes multiple images all at once.
“We all have different ways of dealing with the relentlessness of it.”
One of Alex’s strategies is to bake.
A gifted pastry chef – Alex creates magnificent, show stopping cakes in his spare time. It’s always a special day in the office when one of Alex’s creations is brought in for sharing.
It’s just one of the things the staff do to bring them closer together as a team.
Kirsty*, 56, is a grandmother from Newmarket. With her past in the Metropolitan Police, Kirsty says assessors must be strong do deal with the “pure volume” of child sexual abuse on the internet.
“I have always had a passion for helping children,” she said. “Having children and grandchildren has opened my eyes to the pure volume of abuse that is out there.”
She said the camaraderie of staff in the IWF hotline helps deal with difficult situations when they arise.
“We are a very humorous team,” she said. “A bit of laughter is very important. The work can mean dealing with quite grim stuff, but being able to talk and have a bit of humour with your colleagues is important.”
Cambridgeshire mum Beth*, 40, said: “I have three children 11 and under. The job has changed the way I think about them and the internet.
“It has surprised me how much material there is of very young children. Some of them are five, six, or seven years old.”
She said one of the ways staff cope is by talking to each other and staying tight as a team.
She said: “Sometimes we’ll discuss Bake Off. Sometimes, if we have seen something disturbing, we talk about that. You have to be positive and not dwell on it.”
When Beth gets to work, it’s a chance for her to make a real difference in the lives of abused children. She enjoys the analytical side of the job, and takes investigating the images she sees as a challenge.
“I like puzzles and cross words,” she said. “It is nice knowing every image we hash will help the abuse be removed from the internet.”
Poppy*, 54, a mum from Suffolk, said the work in the team can see assessors having to view some very distressing content.
She said her previous work as a police officer saw her working with victims of child sexual abuse, as well as those suspected of perpetrating abuse themselves.
Poppy said this work has given her an insight which she brings to her role at the IWF. She said staff welfare at the IWF helps enormously in dealing with some of the things they deal with on a daily basis. Only having to view content for a strictly limited four hours, she said, helps a lot.
Staff on the task force do deal with some of the worst things on the internet, but the training they receive before beginning their task is designed to look after them and make sure they are safe.
Cambridgeshire mum of two Amelia*, a former matron in a boarding school for dyslexic children, said: “The training was phenomenal. It does desensitise you to a degree. We do see stuff that shocks us, but as a team we can work through it. We do cope exceptionally well.
The team works part time, and their exposure to this harmful content is strictly limited.
By 2pm, the team is usually done for the day – giving plenty of time to decompress and put what they have seen behind them.
Whether it’s going home to bake, or doing battle with the A14, the Assessors agree it’s important to “shut the door” on the imagery they have witnessed during the day, and to keep it separate from the rest of their lives.
Beth said: “When I leave, I like to sing in the car.”
Despite the difficult nature of the work, the team pulls together and, at the end of the day, the assessors know they have helped children all over the world, and that the internet is a safer place because of them.
“Kirsty” said: “It is amazing knowing we do such good in the world. It is a team effort. We are like a family.”
*Names changed to protect staff’s identities.