There was a 650 per cent increase in child abuse material on some websites as people seeking to access it moved from the dark web to mainstream social media sites during the pandemic, according to eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant.
In the ACT, the number of people charged with accessing or possessing child exploitation material jumped to 15 in 2020, compared to nine in the year before.
Online crime is a challenge for police in all jurisdictions due to the nature of the internet, while the insidious nature of child exploitation and grooming can make it harder to identify and prevent such crimes.
Offenders have taken advantage of children spending more time online, often unsupervised, to find more victims, the Australian Federal Police said.
ACT Policing’s Detective Sergeant Robert Rose, a member of the inter-jurisdictional Joint Anti-Child Exploitation Teams (JACET), said police were working doggedly on this crime.
“Having a dedicated team means we have dedicated resources to address the issue where we can more actively target the issue here in the ACT,” he said.
The crime became so prolific during the pandemic that sites hosting online child sexual abuse material were crashing in March 2020.
Downloads of child abuse material also increased by more than 160 per cent between April and June last year compared to 2019.
The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) received more than 21,000 incoming reports of child sexual abuse in 2019-20, up from around 14,000 in the previous financial year.
Police in the ACT work with international agencies and other jurisdictions in Australia to trace where the material is posted and where it is being accessed or downloaded.
Obtaining evidence for cybercrimes where online services are hosted in other countries is normally difficult for investigators.
However, Detective Sergeant Rose said that because online child exploitation is reviled across the world, there has been no issue with sharing information with other police forces or enforcement agencies to then act in Australia.
“People and other jurisdictions are happy to provide information on offenders that might be in our jurisdiction,” he said.
Police also conduct ‘sting’ operations to catch out people trying to groom children online, which is what happened to 27-year-old truck driver Brett James Hartley-Kennett.
Hartley-Kennett thought he had been chatting with a 14-year-old girl called ‘Amy’ and planned to meet her for sex after pestering her for nude photos.
Amy turned out to be an undercover police officer who had been using a fake identity. Hartley-Kennett was arrested in July last year. He has since been sentenced to 13 months’ jail, with six months to be spent in full-time custody before he is released in October 2021.
Three people in the ACT were charged with grooming a young person last year. Five were charged the year before.
Detective Sergeant Rose said it was a crime that society needed to discuss as police could not arrest their way out of the problem.
“What we can do is talk to our children about the dangers of strangers online being the same as strangers in real life,” he said.
“Never have your child agree to share intimate images of themselves online, no matter how much pressure they get [and] anyone that asks for intimate images should be reported to police through Crime Stoppers.”
The ACCCE is committed to stopping child exploitation and abuse and is at the centre of a collaborative national approach to combatting organised child abuse. More information about stopping child abuse and exploitation material and staying safe online can be found at www.accce.gov.au.
You can contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or at www.crimestoppers.com.au.