US saw spike in child sex abuse URLs in 2021
Every year the the number of photos and videos containing child sexual abuse found online is growing, and 2021 was no exception. Investigators uncovered record amounts of child sexual exploitation material (CSAM) last year, new figures reveal.
Data from UK child safety association Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) shows 252,194 URLs containing child sexual abuse images over the past 12 months. This is a 64% increase from 2020. In addition to record global figures, the charity has seen a significant increase in the number of CSAMs hosted in the United States. Chris Hughes, the IWF’s hotline manager, said the organization responds to CSAM reports online and also proactively uses technology to track abusive content. Most photos found by the IWF are on image hosting websites, where people can upload content to share.
Since 2016, the Netherlands has hosted more abusive material than any other country analyzed by the IWF. (It houses one of world’s largest internet exchanges). Last year, the Netherlands had 102,676 confirmed CSAM reports, 41% of all the IWF found. This is down from 2020 figures, but coincided with an increase in reports linked to the United States.
The IWF traced 52,774 URLs containing CSAM in the United States last year, accounting for 21% of URLs recorded and placing the country in second place in the IWF rankings. In 2020, it found 8,257 URLs hosted in the United States. Hughes says the change happened when image hosting websites changed their geographic hosts to avoid being taken offline.
“A number of these image hosts and forum sites have left the Netherlands,” says Hughes. “This handful of sites – and there are two in particular that I think have moved to the US – are now driving up our stats for US-based content.” He declines to name the sites because that would draw more attention to them.
Websites that host CSAM are constantly moving around to avoid detection, says Hughes. One site, he claims, has moved 10 times this year alone. It was hosted in France, Latvia, Moldova, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, UK and USA. It can be easier for websites to “hide in plain sight” when they move to a country with lots of internet hosting, says Hughes.
“We have seen a sharp decline in hardware [in] last year,” says Asda Gerkens, chief executive of Dutch child protection group EOKM. “It’s not a good thing. Many websites have moved to countries where there is no hotline or any other method to ask them to remove material. In the Netherlands, Gerkens says, 95% abusive material is removed within 24 hours of discovery.
While the IWF’s figures for 2021 show a geographic shift, they’re just a snapshot of what’s to be found online. The true extent of CSAM online is unclear. In part, record numbers are found every year as tech companies and child safety organizations are getting better and better at detecting it.