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'Game-changing’ chatbot to target people trying to access child sexual abuse online

The aim is for the new chatbot to “target” users before they actually commit a criminal offence.

 The aim is for our chatbot to “target” users before they actually commit a criminal offence.

A “game-changing” new interactive chatbot will interrupt people trying to access online child sexual abuse material to get them to change their ways.

Today (October 14) the End Violence Fund will announce the funding grant for the new Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reThink chatbot which the charity has been developing.

The Internet Watch Foundation is the UK charity responsible for finding and removing images and videos of children suffering sexual abuse from the internet.

The new reThink Chatbot will engage with internet users who are showing signs that they might be looking for images of child sexual abuse.

It will attempt to engage users in a friendly and supportive conversation and at the right time, signpost and refer them to the IWF’s partner organisation, The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which could help them change and control their behaviour.

The aim is for our chatbot to “target” these users at that moment, before they actually commit a criminal offence.

The IWF can engage with them, alert them to behaviour that is illegal online and inform them that help is available for them to control their inappropriate sexual behaviour.

“It has the potential to be a game-changing way to intervene on people who may be about to set off on a dangerous path online."

The chatbot is planned to be fully working and rolled out by the end of 2022.

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation runs the Stop It Now! UK & Ireland helpline as well as deterrence campaigns and intervention programs to prevent child sexual abuse, including the Stop It Now! Get Help website which provides self-help for people viewing child sexual abuse material and receives 15,000 visitors a month. 

In March, the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed it believes there are a minimum of 300,000 individuals in the UK posing a sexual threat to children, either through physical “contact” abuse or online.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “This chatbot really will be a remarkable tool in helping us tackle the growing problem of online child sexual abuse material.

“It has the potential to be a game-changing way to intervene on people who may be about to set off on a dangerous path online.

“We remove millions of images and videos of children suffering the worst kinds of abuse every year, but we know this is a battle that needs to be fought on two fronts. If we can tackle the demand for this material, it could stop some of these videos from being made in the first place. It could mean, ultimately, that children are spared horrific sexual abuse, rape, and torture.”

Joe Andaya, Technical Projects Officer at the IWF, said the chatbot will allow the IWF to take a more “proactive” approach to keeping images and videos of child sexual abuse off the internet.

He said: “Imagine a young man or woman searching for images on the internet, starting with pornography, but moving on to search for more extreme pornography. They may then start searching for images with young people in it, in sexual situations.

“The aim is for our chatbot to target these users at that moment before they actually commit a criminal offence.

“We engage with them and inform them that help is available for them to control their inappropriate sexual behaviour.

“This serves our renewed focus on prevention and deterrence. It helps us be more proactive in tackling the problem, not just reactive.”

Howard Taylor, Executive Director of End Violence said: “The global reach of the new grantees’ projects give them the potential to impact every child online -- no matter where they live.

“By leveraging technology and strengthening collaboration, we are creating a stronger global ecosystem to tackle the most serious type of online violence: sexual exploitation and abuse."

“By moving our engagement from a static position to a dynamic one we will help prevent more offending behaviour."

Deborah Denis, Chief Executive of The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, said intervening early could be critical in preventing people moving on to viewing criminal content.

She said: “Since 2015, we have been targeting those who might be at risk of committing offences online with key messages to deter them from offending and encourage them to seek help to change.

“Based on research with arrested offenders, messages have been delivered through traditional and digital communications which highlight that viewing child sexual abuse material is illegal, the real harm caused to the children who appear in these images, the serious consequences of their behaviour to themselves and those around them, and the fact that help to stop is available.

“Through independent evaluation, this work has proven that some offenders can and will seek help to change their behaviour.

“This ground-breaking Chatbot project will build on the evidence of effective deterrence activity to date, and is a natural next step to this work.

“By moving our engagement from a static position to a dynamic one we will help prevent more offending behaviour.

“Closing websites containing child sexual abuse material is not enough – we need to intervene so that people who might or have viewed illegal material don’t continue to do so.”

The National Crime Agency (NCA) will be involved on the advisory group for the project.

Damian Barrow, senior manager of the darkweb unit at the NCA said: “The NCA is pleased to be part of an advisory group for this collaborative project.

“The NCA welcomes interventions of this type to stop people from moving from risky behaviour to illegal behaviour.”

In 2019, the IWF had a record year, with analysts processing 260,400, up from 229,328 reports in 2018. Of these reports, 132,700 showed images and/or videos of children being sexually abused. This compares to 105,047 reports of child sexual abuse material in 2018.

This has been accelerated during the coronavirus crisis. Data published in July showed the IWF received 44,809 reports from members of the public between March 23 and July 9 this year.

In the same period in 2019, the IWF received, 29,698 reports – meaning there has been an increase of about 50% while the UK was under lockdown.

There are growing fears that young British men could be driving the online trade in criminal images of child sexual abuse.

Speaking on the IWF’s ground-breaking new podcast series Pixels From a Crime Scene, Chief Constable Simon Bailey QPM, The National Police Chief’s Council lead on child protection, warned that more and more young British men are viewing images and videos of children suffering sexual abuse on the internet.

CC Bailey also warned that the UK is the third biggest consumer of livestreamed child sexual abuse in the world.

Images and videos of online child sexual abuse can be reported anonymously at https://report.iwf.org.uk/en

 The public is given this advice when making a report:

  • Do report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed. Reports to the IWF are anonymous.
  • Do provide the exact URL where child sexual abuse images are located.
  • Don’t report other harmful content – you can find details of other agencies to report to on the IWF’s website.
  • Do report to the police if you are concerned about a child’s welfare,
  • Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.
  • Do report non-photographic visual depictions of the sexual abuse of children, such as computer-generated images. Anything of this nature, which is also hosted in the UK, the IWF can get removed.
Report here