Police throughout the world face a substantial challenge in stopping online child sexual abuse.
This abuse involves everything from grooming children for actual physical offences to the production of and trading in images of children being sexually abused.
The commercial trade in such images involves hundreds of sites. An estimated 50,000 new child sexual abuse images are produced each year. The global industry is estimated to be worth approximately US$250 million annually.
The Justice and International Mission unit, along with church members, has been advocating for the government to implement a range of measures to deal with this issue. One of the solutions is for law enforcement to have access to the information they need to be able to track down and prosecute offenders.
Child sexual abuse offenders have sometimes managed to escape justice because Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other communications companies have wiped the data vital to police being able to make a case. The Australian Federal Police have stated they are facing the problem that Australian ISPs and communication companies are wiping data records more quickly, which will undermine investigations into serious offences.
On 1 November 2014, the AFP stated in The Australian that ISPs and communication companies were discarding data within weeks. In one recent case, police tracked down 307 suspects allegedly involved in online child sexual abuse, but 156 escaped because of missing records of their activity.
Legislation proposed by the Federal Government will require communications companies, including ISPs, to keep data about client’s online activities for two years. The AFP has stated this metadata is crucial to being able to locate a range of serious criminal activity, including online child sexual abuse offences. However, they cannot access the information if it is wiped before the police are able to request it.
The new law will limit access to the information to criminal law enforcement agencies.
The Bill does not provide law enforcement agencies with any additional powers, nor does it give them any capacity to access the content of messages, calls and emails, subject lines of emails, website addresses, posts on social media sites or web-browsing history.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman will also be given powers to inspect access to, and the use of, telecommunications data by police to ensure there is no misuse.
Commercial child sexual abuse sites are also supported by a range of payment methods to help avoid detection.
The majority of online commercial child sexual abuse businesses (85 per cent) sell memberships, with recurring monthly payments ranging from $4.00 to $490 (an average of $53 a month). Increasingly, virtual and digital currencies are being used to purchase child sexual abuse material. These currencies have been created online and many are not regulated by governments.
The JIM unit wants the Australian Government to introduce laws to make it a requirement to be able to trace transactions and know who you are dealing with when conducting business with virtual currencies.
An example of the problems of unregulated virtual currencies occurred in October 2013. The operator of Silk Road was arrested and later indicted. Silk Road was a hidden website designed to enable users to buy and sell illegal drugs, weapons, stolen identity information and other unlawful goods and services anonymously.
The US Department of Justice also seized approximately 173,991 bitcoins (an online currency), worth more than US$33.6 million at the time of the seizure.
Using bitcoins as the exclusive currency on Silk Road allowed purchasers and sellers to further conceal their identity, as sellers and recipients can conceal transactions through their anonymous bitcoin address/account. Users can obtain an unlimited number of bitcoin addresses and use a different one for each transaction, further obscuring the trail of illicit proceeds.
New laws to regulate virtual currencies would help make this sort of operation more difficult and provide further disruption to the trading of images of child sexual abuse online.