IWF of ‘prime importance’ in fight against growing threat of online child sexual abuse

Published:  Tue 4 Apr 2023

Child sexual abuse material on the internet is a growing problem, and the role of the Internet Watch Foundation has “never been more demanding or more necessary” according to a former High Court judge.

A new report has been published following an audit of the IWF’s hotline by a team headed by retired High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley.

The audit found the IWF’s work finding, assessing, and grading online child sexual abuse is essential in helping businesses and law enforcement bodies keep the internet free from criminal content.

Sir Mark noted that the last 10 years have seen a growth in reports of child sexual abuse from 41,877 in 2011 to 361,062 in 2021. This is a 762 per cent increase.

According to the report: “Online CSAM has grown and is growing. The role of enforcement, and specifically the role of IWF, has never been more demanding or more necessary. The effective and lawful functioning of IWF is clearly a matter of prime importance.”

This inspection took place in November 2022. The team comprised Sir Mark Hedley, a retired High Court Judge, Nigel Gibbons, Director and Senior Advisor at NCC Group Plc, Georgina Clifford, Specialist Clinical Psychologist and Director of London Trauma Specialists, and Keith Niven QPM National CAID IT Implementation Lead, Norfolk Constabulary.

The report noted how IWF gradings “form a key component of the enforcement processes.”

IWF analysts painstakingly view and grade content according to UK law – a manual process which benefits from analysts’ unique skills and experience.

The audit found the IWF has a good baseline state of Cyber Security with an improvement roadmap that will only see its resilience increase over the coming months.

The inspection focused on the effect viewing extreme content may have on analysts, and commended the IWF for the support and help in place for people exposed to extreme content.

Dr. Clifford said: “The senior management team at IWF described their welfare programme in detail and were incredibly open to discussion and suggestions for improvement. 

“Overall, my opinion was that IWF have an excellent, carefully considered and ever-evolving welfare package in place for their staff.

“They describe a trauma-informed approach to assessing the suitability of new staff for the role, with a comprehensive and rigorous interview and induction process.”

As well as this, the inspectors found IWF staff to be “committed” to the mission of keeping children safe.

Mr. Niven said: "The IWF is an extremely professional and well-managed organisation led by a strong but caring and compassionate leadership team.

“The mission is clearly understood by all staff members who are committed to protecting children from the serious harms that can be inflicted by the perpetrators of online child sexual abuse."

Sir Mark added: “We were impressed by the sense of mutual support and reassurance that we found among staff at all levels and between all levels.

“We were also reassured that there was a conscious commitment to sharing acquired institutional experience and expertise so that IWF could survive the loss of any one staff member.”

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