WASHINGTON, D.C. — It is bad enough there are adults who sexually abuse children and minors. What makes it worse is that the abusers take video and still images of the abuse and share them online with their fellow abusers.

Just one case in point: Police in the Maryland suburbs of Washington arrested a 37-year-old man Feb. 20 and charged him with having sexually assaulted a 14-year-old boy and taking photos of the incident in January. Using a search warrant of the suspect’s home, they found photos involving the victim among 1,000 exploitative images and videos that date back to September 2016.

Police said there was no evidence the suspect was responsible for producing the other images. But it begs the question: How and where did he get them? Police also said there was evidence he had shared the images of the 14-year-old with others, but he was charged with one count of production of child pornography, two counts of distribution of child pornography and 78 counts of possession of child pornography.

Police were able to track the suspect after having received 27 tips from National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Shelley Allwang, program manager of the child victim identification program for the center’s Exploited Children Division, in a phone interview and a follow-up email with Catholic News Service, pointed to ways individuals can help protect kids who may already have been exploited and keep kids safe from exploitation in the first place:

— www.netsmartz.org has prevention materials and educational games for children surrounding internet safety.

— www.cybertipline.org has a reporting form to make reports regarding child sexual exploitation.

— http://www.missingkids.org/theissues/end-to-end-encryption has information on online encryption.

— http://www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline#bythenumbers has CyberTipline data.

Not cyber-savvy? You can always call the center’s toll-free 24-hour hotline to report suspicious images at (800) 843-5678, which comes out to (800) THE-LOST.

Allwang said the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received 16 million tips last year of suspected child sexual exploitation, most of them from tech and social media companies, and tips are forwarded to police departments throughout the country for them to investigate. The center, she added, is one such center in a worldwide network aiming to protect kids.

Since the center’s founding in 1998, “the technology that’s involved, the issues and the volume clearly has changed,” Allwang said. “We’re getting more reports now. But we’ve been doing the same work for the breadth of that time.”

Another website with a variety of resources on internet safety is http://www.faithandsafety.org, a collaboration of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

“There’s just so much work to do,” said Tracey Rembert, director of Catholic responsible investments for Christian Brothers Investment Services, one of many such groups established by religious orders to put pressure on publicly traded companies to behave ethically in their business decisions. “The problem became far worse than we expected.”

Rembert pinned much of the problem of sharing child sexual exploitation images online on what is known as “the dark web.” “You need to have special equipment” to get on it, she said, but “a man on the street can go and get this special equipment and access the dark web — that makes you anonymous.”

Tech companies are moving toward encryption of user data, be it text or images. While that may be advantageous in one respect, it would make the work of finding abuse on the web much harder.

Rembert said the technology exists to place a digital code onto each image as it’s being posted. And if someone gives a tip about a particular image — and the digital code matches — a screener who is trained to tell the difference between child pornography and a photo of someone’s granddaughter playing in the bathtub can alert authorities and take action to delete that image from the web, dark or otherwise.

John Clark, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s president and CEO, posted Feb. 20 an open letter to the tech industry asking it to, among other things: implement improved detection technologies to keep offenders from distributing child sexual abuse material; not implement end-to-end encryption for accounts whose users say they are under age 18; adopt technology to identify sexual grooming of children by adults; promptly report apparent child sexual exploitation to the center’s CyberTipline with actionable information to help rescue child victims and hold offenders accountable; and ensure that law enforcement can effectively investigate the sexual exploitation of children.

Ernie Allen, a Catholic who founded the center, said he thought he had retired from that line of work only to be pulled back in by then-British Prime Minister David Cameron, “who said he was concerned about what he called — quite correctly — ‘corroding childhood.'”

Allen went on to be the co-founder of the Child Dignity Alliance, created at the Vatican following a 2017 summit there on the subject. Pope Francis spoke at the 2017 summit and at a second summit in November. Out of that grew the We Protect Child Alliance, a worldwide compact with 97 signatory nations plus 25 tech companies and 30 international organizations, which had its own global summit in partnership with African Union in December in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

One thing Cameron had wrong, according to Allen, was the scope of the problem. “He thought it was a local problem,” he told CNS. Rather — as Allen cited a New York Times investigative report he quoted at the November summit — “20 years these online images were a problem, 10 years ago it was an epidemic, and today, it’s in crisis stage.”

Allen said the U.S. Department of Justice recently shut down a group on the dark web that was “solely focused on the exploitation of young children. Most of these cases involve prepubescent children, and a growing number of infants and toddlers.

“This particular group had 432,000 members,” Allen said.

Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.

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