Lockdown brewing perfect storm for offenders to abuse children online – NSPCC

2 April 2020, 00:04

Child using a smartphone
NSPCC warns coronavirus is three-fold ‘perfect storm’ for abusers to groom children online. Picture: PA

The charity is concerned children could be at greater risk because of reliance on AI while social media moderators move to working from home.

Children stuck at home using the internet during lockdown is brewing a “perfect storm” for offenders to abuse online, the NSPCC has warned.

The children’s charity is concerned that predators could take advantage of the crisis, with social networks relying more heavily on artificial intelligence as human moderators adjust to home working.

Facebook, which uses third party contractors to check content, has tasked full-time employees with more sensitive issues such as child exploitation.

But boss Mark Zuckerberg recently admitted in a press call that efforts against other less extreme categories where the severity posses no imminent physical risks for people “may be a little less effective in the near-term”.

Meanwhile, Twitter has said increased use of automation could result in mistakes, though it is looking “for opportunities to build in human review checks where they will be most impactful”.

Concern among UK law enforcement has been growing as West Midlands police and crime commissioner David Jamieson said the force was “seeing a significant rise” in online child grooming.

The NSPCC fears an over-reliance on AI could hinder swift action required by humans when tackling child abuse and grooming, particularly at a time when children have more access to the internet than usual while schools are closed.

“The impact of the coronavirus lockdown has increased online risks and brewed a perfect storm for offenders to abuse children,” said Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC.

“The public health emergency is creating major challenges across society, and like all of us tech firms must adapt.

“It’s vital they set out how they are prioritising protecting children by identifying and disrupting offenders with fewer moderation resources available.”

Social media apps
Like many companies, staff at social networks have resorted to working from home during the pandemic (Yui Mok/PA)

Mr Jamieson, who oversees the work of the largest police force in the UK after the Met, said he was “particularly worried about a higher prevalence of online grooming with young people spending more time on the internet”.

“I have asked the police to work very closely with the National Crime Agency to tackle this issue,” he added.

“I would also urge parents to keep a close eye on their children to ensure they are safe online and don’t become victims of predators.”

Europol recently revealed that information received from law enforcement partners “strongly indicates increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material” during the pandemic.

“Social media and gaming sites are proving to be a lifeline for parents and their children as they adapt to being at home, but we must also recognise there are heightened risks,” Mr Burrows continued.

“It is more important than ever for parents to have regular conversations with their children about what they’re doing online and to reassure them they can come to you with any worries.”

It comes as the head of the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which is responsible for identifying and removing child abuse content, told the PA news agency it is facing “a war of attrition” to clamp down on illegal images.

“Nobody knows how much of this content is out there,” chief executive Susie Hargreaves said.

“The challenge for us is that as more people go online across the world, more content is shared, so it feels like it’s increasing day by day.”

Daniel Dyball, UK executive director at Internet Association, which represents social networks, said: “Internet companies are as committed as ever to improving digital safety across their platforms.

“They share the goal of eradicating child exploitation online and offline.

“From huge investment in technology that removes harmful content at source, to the continued deployment of dedicated moderation teams, safety remains a priority focus for internet companies.

“Internet companies are also working tirelessly to contribute to the response to the coronavirus pandemic, helping governments around the world tackle the virus, as well as providing useful tools to keep people in touch and connected during these difficult times.”

By Press Association

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