Child sexual abuse content increasingly being ‘masked’ online to hide crimes – latest global data

Published:  Sun 2 Apr 2017

The “disguised website” technique makes detection harder.

Criminals are increasingly using masking techniques to hide child sexual abuse images and videos on the internet and leaving clues to paedophiles so they can find it.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) will publish its latest global trends and analysis in its Annual Report 2016 on 3 April.

It shows that a technique they first identified in 2011 is being more widely adopted by criminals making detection and removal of child sexual abuse images and videos from the internet, harder.

IWF has identified commercial child sexual abuse websites which only display the criminal imagery when accessed by a “digital pathway” of links from other websites. The pathway is like a trail of breadcrumbs; when the pathway is not followed or the website is accessed directly through a browser, legal content is displayed. This means it’s more difficult to find and investigate the illegal imagery. It also means that criminal enterprises online are receiving legitimate banking services, as checking their website won’t automatically reveal the criminal content.

When IWF first identified this technique, they developed a way of revealing the illegal imagery, meaning they could remove it, and the websites could be investigated. But the criminals continually change how they hide the illegal imagery, so IWF’s expert analysts adapt in response.

  • In 2016, 1,572 websites were found to be using this method to hide child sexual abuse imagery. This is an increase of 112% on the 743 disguised websites identified in 2015.

In comparison,

  • In 2013, 353 websites were found to use this technique.

Disguised websites are a significant and increasing problem. IWF shares its expertise in uncovering these websites with their sister hotlines and law enforcement worldwide, to help disrupt the operation of commercial child sexual abuse websites.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO, said: “Criminals using the disguised website technique make it harder for us and other hotlines working in this space to find the child sexual abuse images. However, we have a strong, global network of hotlines and police partners across the globe. We train others in how to unmask this technique and have had great success in taking these websites down. In one example, where we worked with police in the Cayman Islands, a man was convicted.

 “Closer-to-home, the UK now hosts less than 0.1% of the global total of child sexual abuse imagery and this is due to the zero tolerance approach the internet industry in the UK takes.”

The IWF releases its Annual Report 2016 on 3 April exclusively online. It will be found here: It shows the latest global trends and analysis of child sexual abuse content for 2016.


Notes to editors:


Emma Hardy, Director of External Relations +44 (0) 1223 203030 or +44 (0) 7929 553679.

What we do:

We make the internet a safer place. We help victims of child sexual abuse worldwide by identifying and removing online images and videos of their abuse. We search for child sexual abuse images and videos and offer a place for the public to report them anonymously. We then have them removed. We’re a not for profit organisation and are supported by the global internet industry and the European Commission.


For more information please visit

The IWF is part of the UK Safer Internet Centre, working with Childnet International and the South West Grid for Learning to promote the safe and responsible use of technology.

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