CEO Deborah Denis appears on BBC News to discuss role of AI in child sexual abuse

30 June 2023

By Deborah Denis, Chief Executive of The Lucy Faithfull Foundation

Recently, I was invited to talk to BBC News about their investigation into AI being used to create life-like sexual images of children. These illegal images are now being sold on the web.

There is no doubt this is shocking and distressing, but sadly it is not surprising.

Our experience over more than 30 years shows that some people who want to abuse and exploit children will use whatever technology is available to do this.

And artificial intelligence is no different.

A wake up call

The internet revolutionised how we live our lives and brought many benefits that we take for granted. But it was also weaponised to allow child sexual abuse at a vast scale.

Shining a light on the dangers of AI should be a wake-up call to us all – tech companies, law enforcement, child protection agencies. It is incumbent on everyone involved to ensure that new technology, and these new environments in which they are used, are as safe as they can be.

We need a coordinated response from all parties to fully understand the risks of AI as a child sexual abuse issue.

We are well placed to consider those risks drawing on our expertise of research and practice with regard to sexual offending.

One of those risks is inappropriate fantasy. Sexual fantasies are a healthy and normal part of everyday life and everybody fantasises about something at one point or another. But sexual fantasy about children reinforces the attraction to things that are illegal and abusive and therefore we must be proactive and put prevention to the top of the agenda.

As the BBC article reported, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead on child safeguarding, Ian Critchley, said it would be wrong to argue that because no real children were depicted in such “synthetic” images – that no-one was harmed.”

Tech companies need to do more to keep children safe

It is vital that we learn from the mistakes made when the internet was first rolled out and ensure that we implement safety by design.

One of the unintended consequences of the rapid growth of the internet was that – for all of its huge benefits – it was (and still is) hardly regulated and didn’t have child safety built in. This provided a safe space for people who wanted to create and share sexual images of children, and do this undetected.

This saw an explosion of child sexual abuse online.

Since the early days of the internet, law enforcement, child protection organisations like ours, and researchers have learnt so much about the pathways to online offending and how we can intervene to keep children safe. We all know the risks of taking our eye off the ball.

Tech companies need to lead the way and commit to making the internet a hostile place for people who want to offend by designing their platforms so child safety is a top priority.

Lawmakers have their part to play too. Through the Online Safety Bill there is an opportunity to legislate to ensure that the web is a safe space for young people to enjoy everything that is great about the internet – connectivity, access to information and entertainment.

And we will also play our part.

Ground-breaking initiatives

We are committed to continuing and extending our work to deter online offending and we have run our online child sexual abuse deterrence campaign for the past seven years. The challenge we recognised back in 2015 was the gulf between the numbers of people being arrested – around 4,500 people a year – and the 100,000 estimated to be committing offences.

Sadly, these numbers have only increased in recent years.

And data from our campaign last year showed that more than 270,000 people sought advice or support via our Stop It Now! resources for their own or a loved one’s online sexual behaviour towards children. This campaign will start its next phase later this year.

In addition, over the next three years, through our ground-breaking initiative with Nominet, Project Intercept, we will hone and improve our warning messages across the internet to prevent people from viewing sexual images of children online. And we will take what we learn into new online environments and spaces.

Anonymous support to stop offending

Our message to anyone engaging in illegal sexual behaviour online is this: what you are doing is harmful, illegal and you will be caught.

But we can help you stop.

If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children, visit Stop It Now or call 0808 1000 900 for anonymous support to stop and stay stopped.

The time to act is now

We believe that a world free from child sexual abuse is possible but that vision requires coordination from all parties and proactivity to fully understand the issue, to mitigate the risks, and to deter would-be offenders.

The time to act is now.

We must not leave it up to young people to protect themselves.

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