'These images are a crime scene … it's massive for us to find the child'

'These images are a crime scene … it's massive for us to find the child'

Isobel* has been working throughout lockdown. With her colleagues in the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) analyst room in Cambridge she has been responding to a rising number of tipoffs from the public that child abuse images are circulating online. The work is gruelling.

“Today I started at 8.30 and I’ll be looking at content all day long: thousands and thousands of images in a day. We analysts come from all sorts of backgrounds. The main thing is your emotional resilience – it’s incredibly important that you can look at this content and then go home and not think about it.”

Lockdown has helped drive a record year for reports to the hotline.

“We have had a massive increase in reports, with people at home more because of lockdown they are seeing more images. Some people will say, ‘I was looking at adult porn and I stumbled across it, they look too young’, though they might not be correct. Sometimes they give the name of a website. Image hosts are one of the most abused sites.”

She says it is the easy availability of the content that makes it so dangerous. “The content is not usually hidden on the dark web, it’s mostly on the open internet, which is why what we do is so important.”

Over recent years there has been a shift from images filmed of abuse with adults and children in a room together towards images obtained through online grooming.

These are called “self-generated” because they are filmed by the victims themselves.

“This could be a child talking to somebody online and someone the other side of the screen is asking them to do particular sexual things. The child doesn’t understand they are being recorded. Or it could be a case that a child shared images with a boyfriend and those were leaked.

“I’ve seen more of it this year; it is girls mainly in their bedroom or their bathroom in a family home setting – quite often we know they are at home, and their parents, carers or family are downstairs. It’s really important to say there is no blame on victims or parents, those images shouldn’t be online. All of these images are a crime scene.”

As well as processing reports from the public the analysts actively search for images of child abuse.

“Most of our figures for finding and removing content are from us proactively searching. We know where it is. We come across people discussing the images. Some people are collectors, they want to collect every image of a particular child.”

Sometimes images circulate for years and analysts do everything they can to find and permanently remove them, working with police to track down children who need safeguarding.

“Unfortunately, we see children who grow up before our eyes; we see them being abused at various stages. It’s just massive when we are able to help find a child, it means so much to us.”

The analysts are always looking for ways to remove images faster and more effectively, and Isobel hopes eventually her job will be redundant.

“Although this has opened up my eyes to how awful people can be I still maintain that most people are good. Every day I sit in a room and we are there trying to stop people stumbling across these images. The absolute aim is I don’t have a job any more.”

*Name has been changed