A lengthy investigation by reporters at The New York Times has uncovered a tragic epidemic of images and videos of the sexual abuse of children being shared online. According to them, tech companies estimate some 45 million such videos and images were shared online last year — twice the amount of the previous year.
Compounding the tragedy is the numerous failures in the tech industry and the federal government that led to the proliferation of such images, despite numerous commitments to crack down. The NYT found that, similar to the exponential rise in online white nationalist groups, tech companies refused to take the crisis seriously and did not cooperate with authorities. Meanwhile, government agencies tasked with stemming the tide were understaffed and poorly funded.
The NYT report is harrowing, finding a global crisis that nevertheless has taken root in the U.S. thanks to Silicon Valley’s central role in the digital universe. Facebook Messenger, Dropbox and even Bing have been used as mediums for the photos and videos, often captured by smartphone, but of course they are far more likely to spread across the Dark Web, where online groups train each other to better encrypt the images and videos from detection by authorities.
In 2008, Congress passed landmark legislation aimed at curbing the proliferation of child pornography online, but the NYT found that major aspects of the law had not been enforced. The Justice Department produced only two of the six reports mandated by Congress, while the yearly funding for state and local law enforcement has often been diverted. This year, for example, the Department of Homeland Security redirected 40 percent of its budget for cybercrimes — about six million dollars — towards immigration enforcement instead. As one Homeland Security agent put it: “We could double our numbers and still be getting crushed.”
Meanwhile, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is dealing with woefully out-of-date equipment — the report says they’re relying on 20-year-old computers — to apprehend criminals using what one expert calls “the cutting edge of technology” to mask their crimes.
And tech companies whose platforms have been used for the dissemination of these materials are described as frequently “looking the other way” and being “slow to respond.”
“The companies knew the house was full of roaches, and they were scared to turn the lights on,” said Hany Farid, who worked with Microsoft to develop child sexual abuse detection technology. “And then when they did turn the lights on, it was worse than they thought.”
And it may only get worse. Facebook has announced plans to encrypt Facebook Messenger, one of the most commonly used platforms for spreading images and videos of sexual abuse — a move authorities say will make it much easier for images of child abuse to be shared online. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted to this when he announced the encryption plans in March, saying “Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things.”
And in the meantime, the epidemic is surging towards terrifying new highs. “Each and every image is a depiction of a crime in progress,” Sergeant Jeff Swanson, a task force commander in Kansas, told the NYT “The violence inflicted on these kids is unimaginable.”
You can read the whole report here. Please note it includes graphic and disturbing details.