A million of the worst child sexual abuse images graded by ‘elite’ taskforce

Published:  Mon 6 Jun 2022

A million of the very worst images of child sexual abuse the police have ever seized have been turned into digital fingerprints in an “unprecedented” drive to prevent criminal material being shared online.

One year since being set up, the Internet Watch Foundation’s dedicated hashing taskforce has analysed a million images, including some of the most severe content on the internet, from the Government’s Child Abuse Image Database (CAID) system and turned them into unique hashes.

These hashes act as digital fingerprints – unique digital codes – which are shared with law enforcement and service providers to flag up and block any attempts to share or distribute this material online.

The CAID database is the UK’s highly secure depository for the worst criminal material seized by the police and found online.

The IWF is the UK charity responsible for finding and removing child sexual abuse material from the internet. It is the only non-law enforcement organisation granted access to the criminal content stored in the CAID database.

By working through it, analysing the imagery and creating digital hashes, some of the very worst material on the internet will be blocked and prevented from surfacing online again. 

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “This is an unprecedented project which will undoubtedly make the internet a safer place, providing a major boost to online safety and security for the whole world.

“The material stored on this database includes some of the very worst criminal material police have ever seen. Some of the shocking abuse our taskforce sees being perpetrated against children is so extreme, we only allow them to work four hour shifts, taking regular breaks, and with access to the best counselling and support.

“This team is truly an elite taskforce, chosen for their resilience and determination to protect children. Thanks to them, we, and our partners, can work to make sure this material can never again be shared or spread on the internet.”

Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean said: “The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is one of the most appalling and distressing crimes and we are doing everything to prevent and pursue offenders.

“The Internet Watch Foundation plays a vital role in this effort and reaching this milestone is an incredible achievement. Preventing the sharing and resurfacing of disturbing material will help victims of these heinous crimes and make the internet a safer place.

“Protecting children online is a top priority. Our Online Safety Bill will place greater responsibility on technology companies to stamp out child abuse material, with powerful sanctions if they fail to do so.”

The images assessed and hashed by the IWF’s specialist team include Category A and B material, the most severe kinds of child sexual abuse material on the internet.

Category A images of children can involve penetrative sexual activity, images involving sexual activity with an animal, or sadism. Category B images can involve non-penetrative sexual activity.

“Beth”*, an image classification assessor on the taskforce, 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.”

The team works with the IWF’s own breakthrough IntelliGrade hashing tool which automatically matches up images and videos to the rules and laws of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK.

It does this by allowing each hash to be enriched with additional ‘metadata’ – information which explains the exact nature of the abuse taking place to the child.

This means the taskforce’s work can have a real impact all over the globe and will enable tech companies to take swift action to prevent the spread of this abusive material.

This will keep internet users safe from stumbling across such material, and will also give peace of mind to victims who often live with the knowledge footage of their abuse could be being shared by criminals around the world.

The hashes created by the taskforce come at a vital time, as the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online has reached record levels.

In 2021 the IWF took action to remove 252,000 URLs which it confirmed contained images or videos of children being raped and/or suffering sexual abuse. This is more than ever before.

The IWF taskforce was set up in 2021 thanks to a grant from international child protection organisation Thorn.

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