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Indecent Images Campaign - The Image Analysts

February 14, 2018

As the Marie Collins Foundation plays a central role in a ground-breaking national campaign to educate young men about the law surrounding indecent images of under-18s online, we went behind the scenes to find out more about the harm caused and efforts to drive such material off the internet.

AS one door opens, another closes in a secure entry system before visitors, who have already been cleared for access, are allowed to proceed. Ahead lie standard office desks in groups of three, each with computers with their screens turned off. The people at the desks turn to greet the guests or wave across the room. The visitors smile, say hello and look on in admiration then turn to leave, thankful perhaps that they are not one of those swivelling their chair back to face a screen and continue their work.

The room is on the first floor in a contemporary building on a modern business park yet the work that goes on there is a world away from its pleasant surroundings. This is the Internet Watch Foundation’s UK headquarters, normal premises with exceptional staff doing an unenviable job.

“All our analysts work on the top floor because we cannot run the risk of someone walking past our offices and accidently see what our analysts are working on through the window. Even we, as the staff in the office, have to let them know if we need to come in. We can’t just walk in unannounced because we may well see things that could be criminal,” explains Tracy Garcia, communications officer at the IWF.

The analysts’ room is where the fundamental work of the IWF takes place, where the illegal, indecent and abhorrent images involving children that proliferate online today are found, identified, categorised, ‘hashed’ or digitally fingerprinted and removed. “It’s not a job that can be done by machine,” explains Tracy, “because every image has to be analysed within the context of the law.”

It is, therefore, a job that requires a particular thick skin and recruitment of the 13 analysts at the IWF is a specialist task in itself.

“Potential recruits have up to three interviews. The first one is a formal interview with the HR Manager, the Hotline Manager and an external assessor. The second one is a lot more informal and aims to determine if the candidate is emotionally resilient and has a good support network around them. Of course, we also provide welfare provision in addition to extensive training, but it’s important that all analysts have a good support system outside work,” explains Tracy.

The last stage is an image viewing assessment in which the candidate’s reaction to seeing illegal images, moving through the categories from C to A, A being the worst, is tested. This interview usually takes place on Friday, allowing the candidate to consider carefully over the weekend if they are still interested in a job, knowing what it will entail.

The complexity of the recruitment process reflects the seriousness of the analysts’ role – during the course of their job they will see things so distasteful that most of us cannot even contemplate. Not surprisingly they have an enforced ten-minute break every hour during which they can head downstairs to the homely staff kitchen, play a game of table tennis or sit on a couch and chat to colleagues.

There is no doubt it is a tough job, but if the amount of indecent sexual imagery is to be even somewhat reduced then someone has to view it in order to get rid of it to prevent harm. Marie Collins Foundation, a North Yorkshire-based charity, is currently working in partnership with the IWF and the Home Office on a national campaign designed to educate young men aged 18-24 about the law surrounding indecent images of under-18s. The target demographic was identified after a poll by Ipsos MORI showed that 24% of young men did not think it was illegal to view, download or share indecent images of a child or young person where they appeared to agree to take part in the image, while 22% of young men did not agree that “the children in the indecent images are harmed by the experience”. The research showed that a quarter of the young men surveyed said they would not report an indecent image of a child while 20% were likely to ignore it and continue browsing.

UK law is clear – taking, making, sharing or possessing indecent images of under-18s is illegal. A pilot campaign earlier this year to educate, inform and encourage young men to make the right choices and to take responsibility for their online behaviour proved so successful that it has now been rolled out nationally with the straplines #Knowthelaw and #NoIfsNoButs. It already has the support of Army, YMCA, Sport and Recreation Alliance as well as police forces and universities.

Part of the educational mission is to show how devastatingly harmful viewing and sharing indecent images is to young lives. With experts who have worked with victims of online child sexual abuse over many years, the role of Marie Collins Foundation is to highlight the deep and lasting impact on children.

“These are not victimless crimes. They cause harm that can last a lifetime,” explains MCF chief executive Professor Tink Palmer MBE.

“Victims who are forced or coerced into having abusive images taken not only have to suffer that abuse but also have no control over what happens to those images in the future. Once they are online, they are there forever, often being shared multiple times around the world.

“Coming to terms with that is extremely difficult and can lead to a range of complex psychological harm for years to come.” The campaign highlights not only the under-18 aspect of the law – research shows that many assume the legal age for sexual imagery is 16 – it also demonstrates in a series of videos that the age of subjects in pictures is often difficult to determine. However, there is no defence in law that allows the accused to use ignorance or lack of knowledge as mitigation.

As well as educating, the campaign encourages internet users to report any child sexual images to the IWF in confidence via its hotline on their website. The IWF comprises more than 130 international household names in communications and technology, including Sky, BT, Vodafone, Google, Twitter and Facebook. Yet even with the weight and wealth of all these names working together to clean up the internet, the IWF’s work continues full-time.

Part of the reason is that much of the child sexual abuse imagery is hosted overseas, 37% of it in the Netherlands for example. Perhaps surprisingly, only one per cent of the material is hosted on social media platforms. When a foreign-hosted image is reported, the IWF contacts its partners overseas. The good news is that technology is catching up with the offenders and the new hashing system allows a digital fingerprint to be attached not just to an original image but every edit or duplicate of it too. Hashing ensures they can never be uploaded, shared or hosted again.

Peter, an IWF analyst, shares his experience working for the IWF: “Soon after becoming an analyst, I identified an image of a child I hadn’t seen before. I shouted to the team and we gathered round my screen. The image was of a young schoolgirl in her bedroom. It looked like she was being prompted by someone and that she was completely unaware of how serious her situation was. “The whole team worked together to gather as much visual evidence as we could, details of the room, fabrics, decoration – anything that could help try and identify her. Then we passed the information to the police. We were later told the youngster had been found and was safe. She was just 12 years old and had been groomed online for years. I can’t tell you how amazing we all felt when we got the news that she’d been rescued. It was brilliant. “We all cope with the work in a different way. I look at it and then think, right, what can I do to get this offline? We have an important job to do and that’s what drives us.”

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“It is comforting to see that the Marie Collins Foundation is trying to address the issues of children harmed online and enabling front line practitioners to conduct work with children that is based on relevant research. I will be a regular visitor to the website and will be advertising the charity in the workshops I facilitate.”

Social worker, MCF training attendee

Marie Collins Foundation Partners