Nine million searches for child abuse images during first month of lockdown

There were nearly nine million attempts to access child sex abuse images online in the UK during the first month of lockdown, new figures show.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said data from three unidentified tech companies revealed there had been at least 8.8 million searches for such material across a month-long period between March and April as the restriction measures were introduced.

They registered each time an internet user attempted to access a blocked website address flagged by the IWF in a regularly updated list of URLs.

The true figure is likely to be even higher, the organisation warned, as only data sets from three internet companies were used.

Susie Hargreaves, IWF chief executive, said: ‘This is the first time we have had this data made available to us and it just goes to show how important the URL list is. Without it, child sexual abuse material would have been accessed millions of times in this period alone.

‘While we have no like-for-like data to compare it with, the fact so many of these attempts have been blocked suggests the scale of the issue of public demand is quite staggering, and something we need to remain vigilant against.’

Ms Hargreaves said the UK must ‘face up’ to the problem of demand for criminal content from domestic predators and appealed to companies operating in the UK, which do not provide protections, to step up.

She said: ‘Whilst the majority of the UK’s internet connections are filtered by this list, there are still companies operating in the UK which offer no such protections. If we’re serious about creating a safer internet, everyone needs to step up.

‘It’s important to disrupt the availability of these images and videos, and it helps give victims reassurance that the footage of their sexual abuse is not being passed around and enjoyed by these people.’

Last month the IWF’s annual report found youngsters aged 11-13 accounted for nearly half of child abuse images, although fewer than 1% of images were hosted in the UK.

It comes as the National Crime Agency (NCA) this week reported it was investigating more than 120 cases of video conferencing site Zoom being hijacked by people displaying images of child abuse, a practice known as ‘Zoombombing’.

In April, the NCA warned there were at least 300,000 people in the UK posing a sexual threat to children, amid concerns that lockdown measures would fuel a rise in young people being groomed online.