IWF and Stop It Now! to develop ‘ground-breaking’ chatbot to combat online child sexual abuse

14 October 2020

A new chatbot targeting people trying to access online child sexual abuse images will be developed by the Internet Watch Foundation, in partnership with Stop It Now! and The Lucy Faithfull Foundation.

The chatbot, named ‘reThink’, will engage with internet users who are showing signs that they might be looking for images of child sexual abuse.

Online solutions to online problems

The automated pop up will attempt to engage users in a friendly and supportive conversation before they commit a crime. It will point them towards the confidential Stop It Now! helpline who could help them change and control their behaviour.

The helpline gave advice and support to nearly 6,000 people in the last year with worries about child sexual abuse and its prevention, and around half of those people were concerned about their own sexual thoughts or behaviour. Its website also provides self-help for people who want to stop viewing child sexual abuse material and receives 15,000 visitors a month.

Partnerships to beat a growing crime

The chatbot project is a collaboration between the IWF and Stop It Now! and funded by the End Violence Against Children global partnership.

It comes at a time of growing fears that young British men could be driving the online trade in criminal images of child sexual abuse. In March, the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed it believes there are a minimum of 300,000 individuals in the UK posing a sexual threat to children, either through physical “contact” abuse or online.

Deborah Denis, chief executive of The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, said: “Since 2015, we have been targeting those who might be at risk of committing offences online with key messages to deter them from offending and encourage them to seek help to change.

“Based on research with arrested offenders, messages have been delivered through traditional and digital communications which highlight that viewing child sexual abuse material is illegal, the real harm caused to the children who appear in these images, the serious consequences of their behaviour to themselves and those around them, and the fact that help to stop is available.

“Through independent evaluation, this work has proven that some offenders can and will seek help to change their behaviour.

“This ground-breaking Chatbot project will build on the evidence of effective deterrence activity to date, and is a natural next step to this work.

“By moving our engagement from a static position to a dynamic one we will help prevent more offending behaviour.

“Closing websites containing child sexual abuse material is not enough – we need to intervene so that people who might or have viewed illegal material don’t continue to do so.”

Lockdown expected to increase online child sexual abuse

In 2019, the IWF had a record year, with analysts processing 260,400, up from 229,328 reports in 2018. Of these reports, 132,700 showed images and/or videos of children being sexually abused. This compares to 105,047 reports of child sexual abuse material in 2018.

This has been accelerated during the coronavirus crisis. Data published in July showed the IWF received 44,809 reports from members of the public between March 23 and July 9 this year – up 50% since 2019.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive of the IWF, said: “This chatbot really will be a remarkable tool in helping us tackle the growing problem of online child sexual abuse material.

“It has the potential to be a game-changing way to intervene on people who may be about to set off on a dangerous path online.

“We remove millions of images and videos of children suffering the worst kinds of abuse every year, but we know this is a battle that needs to be fought on two fronts. If we can tackle the demand for this material, it could stop some of these videos from being made in the first place. It could mean, ultimately, that children are spared horrific sexual abuse, rape, and torture.”

Joe Andaya, technical projects officer at the IWF, said the chatbot will allow the IWF to take a more “proactive” approach to keeping images and videos of child sexual abuse off the internet.

He said: “Imagine a young man or woman searching for images on the internet, starting with pornography, but moving on to search for more extreme pornography. They may then start searching for images with young people in it, in sexual situations.

“The aim is for our chatbot to target these users at that moment before they actually commit a criminal offence.

“We engage with them and inform them that help is available for them to control their inappropriate sexual behaviour.

“This serves our renewed focus on prevention and deterrence. It helps us be more proactive in tackling the problem, not just reactive.”

The National Crime Agency (NCA) will be involved on the advisory group for the project.

Damian Barrow, senior manager of the darkweb unit at the NCA said: “The NCA is pleased to be part of an advisory group for this collaborative project.

“The NCA welcomes interventions of this type to stop people from moving from risky behaviour to illegal behaviour.”

For more information, please contact Michael Walsh, media and communications manager: mwalsh@lucyfaithfull.org.uk

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