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Safeguarding podcast: the Global Threat Assessment with Nick Newman at PA Consulting

Nick Newman, defence, security and public safety expert at PA Consulting, is interviewed by Neil Fairbrother at The SafeToNet Foundation about the Global Threat Assessment Report launched at the WeProtect Global Alliance conference in Ethiopia in December 2019.

Nick discusses the key findings of the report across five areas: global technology trends, changing offender behaviours, victims’ online exposure, the socio-economic environment, and the sphere of harm.

Nick says: “A major theme of this report was to ensure we had a truly international perspective. I think in the past we’d probably focused on the North American or Western European, UK lens. And I think our concern is that those nations are receiving instant access to all of the internet that technology can offer with none of the preparatory measures and social support infrastructure that we in the North or the West have put in place progressively over about 20 years.”

He explains the challenges related to technological changes: “Back in 2018 we saw that the offender community, felt justifiably ashamed of their action and would therefore keep it very private, but was also very concerned about being discovered and criminalised. What we were seeing in the first Threat Assessment was the emergence of these dark web networks where they were feeling empowered to socialise with like-minded groups, form networks that would share images, tips and techniques on how to avoid detection, but also how to find and groom children without capture.

“We discovered that there’s been a shift this time, because the industrialisation of these security and anonymity products means that you don’t have to be operating in the dark web to have access to that layer of privacy. You can download a virtual private network service or anonymity software from the mainstream app stores, which means that we’re now seeing that phenomenon of common networks effectively operating on the surface web. This information is much more clearly available, but the individuals accessing or sharing it are hiding behind this mask of anonymity”, he adds.

Nick explains the impact of encryption on children’s safety online: “18.4 million referrals of child abuse imagery went through the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and about 12 million of those emanated from Facebook Messenger. Now that in itself is of concern. What is of greater concern is that Facebook has declared intent to provide end-to-end encryption of all of its messaging platforms. By encrypting those services, we are not removing the harm, we are simply unable to see, detect or request to take down if it is invisible.

“On a slightly more positive note, there has been a sense that international political leaders are hitting Facebook over the head with a big stick. I think the tone is changing subtly to imploring Facebook’s leadership that as they design new social media services, they must do so cognizant of the fact that they need to balance their obligation not just to the privacy of their consumers, but also to the safety of their consumers online”, he points out.

Nick discusses the changing offender behaviour. He says: “In the in the child exploitation space we have what we believe is an emergent cycle of behaviour, which is for whatever reason an offender seeks out this material. We’ve already identified that there are now these emerging networks of likeminded individuals. It is understandable that these individuals who will migrate towards those networks which help them acquire tips and techniques for grooming children and avoiding detection, but they demand a membership [fee]. And that used to be cash, but now it is new imagery. The network is incentivising the offender to pursue new and fresh previously unseen imagery. So now our offender who is a viewing offender is becoming a collection offender and that might mean that they are searching the web for publicly available sexualised images of children."

He goes on to discuss parental consent for children’s use of social media. “There are really no checks and balances from the social media industry about the age of their users because there is no universally agreed system for verification of children’s ages online. I think the goal would be a credible and legitimate means of verifying a child’s age, but it is fraught with difficulty. I mean these are global platforms and they’re globally accessible. Any legislation or enforcement would need to be one that was universally agreed and applied.

“I think we’re a long way from solving that problem, which makes it very difficult to make parents liable for their children’s conduct. We need to educate our parents and teachers to be aware of these risks and be educating their children and taking the moral responsibility to help their children avoid these risks”, he adds.

On the socio-environmental context Nick says: “There is a dawning realisation, only now surfaced through this report and discussed in great length in Addis Ababa in December [2019], that we have a global challenge about how do we transplant those 20 years of learning that we have had the benefit and the privilege of evolving as the Internet has evolved, and how do we transplant that into nations who are conducting this leap to technology parity. I think this is both a challenge and a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom as we exit the European Union. We’re looking at how we develop the UK’s prosperity and I would love to believe that as part of that prosperity agenda we would be thinking actively about how we provide an online safety aid package for those friendly developing nations that reach out to us.”

Nick concludes: “I’m optimistic that we’re understanding and communicating these issues better. We must never be complacent about the scale of this problem but there is an extraordinary machine, and all credit to the WeProtect Global Alliance and the UK government for sponsoring it over this last five years.”

Read the transcript and listen to the full interview on SafeToNet Foundation’s website

It’s time for a completely new approach to the way we educate children about online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

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