Hiding in Plain Sight - Child Abusers on the Darknet

The growing popularity of Tor and other anonymising tools has provided unprecedented opportunities for paedophiles to view and share child pornography online. Before Darknet access became widespread, offenders were forced to purchase obscene materials in high-risk transactions which could expose their real-world identities. These days however, it is a very different story. Explicit images of children are now easily accessible on the Darknet.

However, this sort of material is not widely tolerated among the general Darknet community. Legitimate moderated sites enforce strict rules on the sharing, requesting or linking to obscene content involving children. Users doing so are likely to have their posts removed and risk being banned from the site.

Platforms that lack moderation and allow anonymous posting, on the other hand, often feature numerous links and requests for this type of content. Even here however, users seeking or distributing such obscene material predominantly face a hostile response from other users. Scams are also prevalent and the unwary child abuser may be tricked into parting with their Bitcoins, or perhaps revealing their identities to police or cyber extortionists. These factors partly explain why some paedophiles tend to form their own communities on the Darknet.

As part of our work, we sometimes come across websites dedicated to child abuse. Many of these have been around for years in various forms and are well-known among the Darknet community. Others are newly forged and quickly gain a sizeable following. On 29 December for example, we stumbled upon a new chatroom that outwardly displayed nothing to suggest that it was frequented by paedophiles. Once inside however, it became clear that the users were almost exclusively discussing child abuse and sharing images of children.

Darknet researchers and other users must not turn a blind eye if they come across obscene material involving children. While it is understandable that most people want to avoid discussing child abuse online, the prevalence of explicit images and videos necessitates a more robust and proactive response. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

Cyjax maintains a direct line of communication with law enforcement agencies via our Live Intelligence service. All obscene material discovered is immediately forwarded to their child protection teams.

For the Darknet user, there are several avenues that can be used to report explicit material involving children. Some police departments have a dedicated team that can be contacted directly. See for example https://www.met.police.uk/advice-and-information/child-abuse/child-sexual-exploitation; this page also includes various other website addresses for reporting this type of material. Distressing content can also be reported to https://www.ceop.police.uk/ceop-reporting.

In addition, website links can be submitted anonymously to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). This UK-based charity works closely with law enforcement to have over 1,000 pages involving obscene material removed or blocked every week. Further information is available on their website: https://www.iwf.org.uk/.