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COVID-19: Pandemic fuelling rise in online sex crimes against children, charity says

The coronavirus pandemic is “fuelling long-term changes” to the threat posed by online sexual abusers, with children now facing “significant new risks”, according to the country’s leading children’s charity.

The warning from the NSPCC comes as analysis of the latest crime trends shows a 17% rise in online sex crimes against children in the months after the first COVID-19 lockdown.

The Home Office offence data reveals there were 17,699 online child sex offences recorded by police in England and Wales between April and September last year.

That’s an increase from 15,183 during the same period in 2019.

It includes more than 14,500 Obscene Publication offences – up almost a fifth on 2019.

Most of those offences are believed to involve the trade in child sexual abuse images.

Nearly 3,200 sexual grooming crimes were recorded in the six months from April last year – an increase of 6% on the previous year.

The NSPCC believes the statistics show the heightened risk children have faced from child abusers online during the pandemic, and claim the coronavirus has resulted in significant online harms to children.

In particular, the charity has singled out live-streaming and video chat as being particularly high risk, as it is becoming more popular among young people.

Andy Burrows, head of the NSPCC’s child safety online policy, said: “It’s clear that the pandemic has increased the demand for child abuse images, and the grooming and sexual abuse of children that creates them.”

Last month, the Home Office published its long awaited strategy for tackling child sexual abuse, with an emphasis on working closer with tech companies to go after the vast majority of offenders who use the internet to groom and abuse children.

The upcoming Online Safety Bill will force a duty of care on tech firms, legally compelling them to do more to protect children on their sites.

But it comes in the wake of a decision by Facebook to switch off some of its child abuse detection tools in Europe in response to new rules from the EU.

At the time of that decision in December, the company said it had no choice but to do so, since the new privacy directive banned automatic scanning of private messages.

In a blog post, Facebook said: “The safety of our community is paramount, and we are advocating for changes that will allow us to resume our efforts to identify this type of material.”

Some other firms, including Microsoft, have not made such changes, arguing the most responsible approach is to keep the technology functioning.

The NSPCC said the Facebook decision was a clear break from the rest of the industry which committed to continue scanning until clarifying legislation could be agreed in Brussels.

The charity said it feared the decision by Facebook could be a “pretext to rolling out end-to-end encryption” across its messaging platforms.

Law enforcement officials and child safety experts have long warned that end-to-end encryption without safeguards in place to protect children would seriously hamper efforts to tackle online abuse.

Mr Burrows said: “It’s astonishing that at this time of heightened risk, instead of making every effort to combat these crimes, some tech firms seem to be paving the way for abuse to go unchecked with commercial decisions that trade off children’s safety and put them at even greater risk.

“The government’s upcoming Online Safety Bill comes at a crucial time. It can lead to ground-breaking protections for children if it gives the regulator the power and agility to hold tech firms accountable if their design choices make their platforms unsafe.”

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has assessed that there are at least 300,000 people posing a sexual threat to children in the UK, many of them using online sites to reach youngsters.

Over a six-month period after the first lockdown began last April, the NCA and police forces across the country made 4,760 arrests of suspected child sexual offenders.

During that same six-month period, more than 6,500 children were identified and safeguarded by authorities.

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