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'Online sex abuse of children is growing trend', warn Brit net cops

Spike in 'unfiltered' smartphone usage among kids blamed

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Paedophiles are increasingly targeting kids online and pressuring them to perform sex acts that are recorded on mobile phones, net-cop quango the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre warned today.

It said, after carrying out joint research with the University of Birmingham, that an "alarming new trend" was starting to emerge with children being groomed on social networking sites.

Last year, CEOP said it had received 1,145 reports from the public relating to online sexual abuse. It added that offenders attempting to meet children offline had fallen to 7 per cent of those reports compared with 12 per cent in 2011.

Peter Davies, who heads up CEOP, said:

What we are seeing is that for a growing proportion of grooming cases reported to the centre, online abuse is an end in itself. UK children can be targeted from anywhere and offenders will cast their net widely to target large numbers of children. Things can quickly spiral out of control for victims.

By way of example, CEOP said it had led an international investigation in 2010 called Operation Hattie that had probed activity in 12 countries over the course of 20 months. In December last year, that inquiry led to the arrest and conviction of two Kuwaiti brothers who had targeted 110 children worldwide, including 78 kids in the UK.

In that case, the men had coerced children to perform sex acts online but no evidence was found that meeting the victims offline was ever the intended endgame.

CEOP noted that a sharp increase in smartphone usage among 12- to 15-year-olds - up 21 per cent in just a year - meant that young people were able to communicate and share images more easily than ever with strangers online.

It said that instant messaging - presumably such as BBM on Blackberry phones - had been used by paedophiles in around a third of the public reports of grooming the net cops received in the past 12 months.

CEOP suggested that parents needed to do more to protect their children. Those kids whose internet activities are monitored and who have more open dialogue about perceived dangers on the web were said to be "more resilient to the techniques used by offenders".

The group warned, however, that two-thirds of parents of 12- to 15-year-olds with a net-enabled phone do not put in filters to restrict their kids' online access. In contrast, one in two parents have "technical controls" in place for their child's computer at home.

Separately, the deputy children's commissioner told the Daily Mail today that parents should police their kids' internet access more stringently.

Sue Berelowitz said:

Parents need to think carefully about social network sites because there is an awful lot of stuff circulating on there.

They should be concerned about their children putting stuff on there – anything sexual, such as kissing, showing their bodies, exposing any flesh. It could attract undue attention and it could get shared.

It is important that children understand about the safe use of social networking sites and don’t talk to certain types of people. There is a lot that parents can and should be doing.

The Register understands that representatives from the ISP industry met government officials last week to discuss how big-name telcos were progressing with the so-called "active choice" option. That idea places the onus on parents to filter out content they consider to be inappropriate for their children.

Active Choice is apparently now favoured by Prime Minister David Cameron, who late last year backed down from trying to force ISPs to introduce network-level filtering on their services or else face regulation.

TalkTalk is the only large telco to have voluntarily adopted such a method. BT, Virgin Media and BSkyB all offer software to their subscribers that can be used to filter content on individual devices.

One of the key issues around the notion that ISPs could be tasked with filtering content is in determining how age verification might work.

A spokesman for the Internet Service Provider Association (ISPA) told El Reg:

"ISPA is aware that there are discussions around age verification but are not sure exactly what is being asked and how this would work in practice." The lobby group added it was currently seeking clarity from the government about the matter. ®

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