Child sex abuse operation: Level of offending much higher than before - investigator

by · RNZ

Extreme and horrific images of child sexual exploitation on a scale never seen before.

The inquiry started after a tip-off from an electronic service provider which identified about 90,000 people sharing child abuse material (file image).Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

That is the result of a world-wide investigation led by New Zealand which has netted hundreds of people involved in the possession and trading of online child sexual abuse material.

The operation spanned 13 countries and has identified thousands of online accounts making up the enormous web of exploitation.

The inquiry started after a tip-off from an electronic service provider which identified about 90,000 people sharing child abuse material.

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) digital child exploitation team said 146 children around the world were saved from further abuse, six of them in this country.

Forty-six people have been arrested here and some have already gone to court and been convicted.

DIA digital child exploitation team manager Tim Houston said the scale of the operation indicated just how significant the problem was.

Tim Houston.Photo: Supplied

''The severity of the material depicted, the aspects of re-victimisation for the children depicted in the material and also the volume of information and offending accounts that we investigated as part of this operation, so it is a significant issue," Houston said.

The volume of cases had been much higher than in previous operations, but he was not sure if it was just the tip of an iceberg.

''We do annually see generally an increase in the number of reports that we receive from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States which is probably the best indication on the levels of people interacting with the material on line.''

Better detection methods also played a part in tracking these people down, Houston said.

"Electronic service providers in the United States are using effective measures to detect this type of content on their systems then that can obviously lead to an increase in reporting.''

ECPAT is an NGO working to stop child sexual exploitation.

Director Eleanor Parkes said she welcomed the latest enforcement operation, but it only dealt to a fraction of the problem.

''The questions then we have to be asking are around what circumstances led to these children being in a situation where they could be exploited in this way, and how big is this picture, really.''

She said many people just do not know or believe child sexual exploitation can happen here.

''We think it is something that just happens overseas but this shows how vulnerable we can be. It is all ages, it's all genders. It can happen right here. Statistically it is often girls who are victims of this kind of thing, but boys and some of the youngest children are the ones who are exposed to the most extreme forms fo abuse and that is sadly something that is happening right in our own back yard.''

With 125 New Zealand-based accounts identified, it showed New Zealand was not immune from trafficking and sexual exploitation, she said.

"Covid peaks and lockdowns have seen an increase in online activity for children and also for perpetrators. Children are more isolated from their usual support networks, which is a problem because isolation and marginalisation are key indicators of vulnerability to exploitation"

Houston said news of the success of the operation should send a warning to those participating in such crimes.

''We will continue domestically and internationally with our partners to target these types of offenders. We have gained extensive insight into how these people work and think, which in turn, I believe will make our efforts, here and abroad much more focussed and informed when we are targeting such people."

Of those already convicted for their part in this latest investigation into the sexual exploitation of children, the maximum jail sentence was just over five years.