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Tuesday, 04 December 2018

Webwatch: 'Epidemic' of online child abuse up 700% in five years, Security Minister warns

Written by Jennifer McKiernan and Alain Tolhurst

An "epidemic" of online child abuse must be tackled with new data laws, Security Minister Ben Wallace has told MPs.

He said there had been a 700% rise in child abuse being reported by tech companies in the last five years as he urged MPs to support new laws to speed up the identification of offenders.

Accessing data would mean child rapists and others could be caught within days, not years, Mr Wallace told the Commons during the second reading of the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates there are up to 80,000 predators who pose a threat to children, the Minister said, with 1,600 police referrals in 2014 rising to 10,000 referrals in 2017.

Mr Wallace said: "The Bill will ensure the law enforcement officers and prosecutors can more effectively investigate and prosecute these horrific offences so children in all our constituencies can be kept safe.

"Child sexual exploitation and abuse is very real and very serious and a growing epidemic, with over 80,000 individual referrals of horrific online content received by the NCA from the tech industry in 2017 - a 700% increase since 2012.

"It is our duty to do something about this and protect the vulnerable online."

He added one operation targeting a "chilling" site containing 100,000 child abuse images found they had been downloaded one million times.

Police struggle to identify perpetrators as requests by British prosecutors for access to data held on servers, often in the US, can be held up in foreign courts - sometimes for years.

The new laws would allow prosecutors to apply directly to the 99% of tech companies based outside the UK for data relating to child abuse.

Pledging safeguards would be put in place, Mr Wallace said: "This means our law enforcement agencies will be able to access the data they need in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years."

Opposition MPs supported the Bill but said some concerns around the death penalty and protection of journalists' sources needed to be addressed.

Shadow security minister Nick Thomas-Symonds said, given most tech companies were based in the US, where 30 states still retain the death penalty, the UK must be cautious.

He said: "This Bill could be used alongside a treaty as the basis for reciprocal information exchange with other countries around the world where the rule of law is not respected by the regimes in power there, making the need for safeguards in this Bill even more pressing."

Lib Dem former minister Sir Ed Davey also spoke up in defence of the amendment on death penalty assurances.

He said: "The UK must oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and we need assurances from Government the law is extremely tight on this."

Mr Wallace said the Government would not want to "sacrifice" any such arrangement to help catch criminals over the Bill, given all the other good work it could do.

The minister was accused of "trying to split hairs" by Sir Ed, who said the amendment was not trying to stop measures to tackle child sexual abuse.

Mr Wallace replied: "My point is the moment for the House to look at that is not in this Bill, it is when that treaty or whatever international arrangement we make with whatever country we need to make it with.

"That comes before this House for scrutiny and then we can have a debate about whether or not that international treaty that we have sought in order to give effect to this order, is right for the balance of risk

"But it is not the generic primary legislation that allows an order to be made is the right vehicle."

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) UK Parliament.