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Millions of attempts to access child abuse content during UK lockdown

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The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has reported that people in the UK have attempted to access illegal child abuse content online more than eight million times during the coronavirus pandemic.

The IWF, which aims to minimise the availability of sexual abuse content online, based its estimate on data from three unidentified consumer tech companies. The organisation blocked and filtered at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access images and videos of child sex abuse during a month-long period (between March and April) during the coronavirus lockdown.

The companies registered each time a UK internet user attempted to access a URL stored in a list of URLs managed by the IWF. This URL list is used by internet companies to block access to sites known to contain child sexual abuse content, which is hosted outside the UK. When a user attempts to access a URL on the list, the user is served a notice making them aware of why they have been blocked from accessing the content and points them towards a child protection website which provides anonymous support to address urges to view child sexual abuse material.

“This is the first time we have had this data made available to us and it just goes to show how important the URL list is,” said Susie Hargreaves, CEO of the IWF. “Without it, child sexual abuse material would have been accessed millions of times in this period alone.”

“While we have no like-for-like data to compare it with, the fact so many of these attempts have been blocked suggests the scale of the issue of public demand is quite staggering and something we need to remain vigilant against.”

The IWF warns that the true figure is likely to be higher, as data sets were used from just three internet companies.

“We need to face up to the fact there is a demand in the UK for this material. Given that this data comes from just three UK tech companies, 8.8 million attempts is a conservative picture and the scale is much bigger, possibly millions more,” Hargreaves added. She called on other UK internet companies to offer protections by filtering URLs on the IWF list.

According to a recent IWF report, children aged from 11 to 13 account for almost half of child abuse images. A small fraction (less than one per cent) of these images are hosted on UK servers.

This week, the National Crime Agency reported that it is investigating more than 120 cases of Zoom video conferences being hijacked by provocateurs to display images of child abuse.

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