Sites reported record 29.3m child abuse images in 2021

Rise of 35% on previous year may represent improvement on the part of platforms, says nonprofit centre

A record 29.3m items of child abuse imagery were found and removed across the internet in 2021, according to data from the US nonprofit organisation in charge of coordinating reports on the matter.

The figure released by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is a 35% increase from 2020.

The centre said the increase in reports was not necessarily cause for alarm and could represent an improvement on the part of platforms. “Higher numbers of reports can be indicative of a variety of things including larger numbers of users on a platform or how robust an ESP’s [electronic service provider’s] efforts are to identify and remove abusive content,” it said.

“NCMEC applauds ESPs that make identifying and reporting this content a priority and encourages all companies to increase their reporting to NCMEC. These reports are critical to helping remove children from harmful situations and to stopping further victimisation.”

The overwhelming majority of reports made to NCMEC came from Facebook. There were 22m pieces of child abuse imagery reported from Facebook alone, and for the first time data was broken out for its owner Meta’s other products, revealing that Instagram made 3.3m reports and WhatsApp 1.3m.

Google made 875,783 reports and Snap 512,522. The adult social network OnlyFans was represented on the list for the first time, with its owner, Fenix International, making 2,984 reports in 2021.

Some companies were conspicuous by their tiny footprint. Apple, despite running a messaging platform and a photo-sharing service, found and reported just 160 pieces of child abuse imagery over the period.

Andy Burrows, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online policy, said: “The record number of child abuse reports received by NCMEC last year is yet another reminder of the scale of offending now taking place online and the risks children continue to be exposed to when using social media.

“With the online safety bill starting its journey through parliament, it is imperative politicians take this opportunity to forge the strongest possible piece of legislation which will protect children from preventable harm and stifle grooming and the sharing of child sexual abuse images.”

The report highlights the complexity of discussions around prevention of harm to children online. End-to-end encryption, which prevents platforms from reading the contents of messages between their users, has come under attack from the government on the grounds that it hampers efforts to fight child abuse.

But the data tells two stories on the topic. Comparing the reports from WhatsApp and Facebook, which have a similar number of users, suggests that the technology may indeed hide millions of cases of abuse; while comparing the reports from WhatsApp and Apple, both of which offer end-to-end encrypted messaging services, shows how much companies can do to root out abuse even within those limits.

Antigone Davis, the global head of safety at Meta, said: “We report the most content because we work hardest to find and remove it. It’s part of our longstanding commitment to protecting children online, but we cannot do this alone. It is time others in the industry invest more so we can work together to prevent the spread of this heinous content. We’ve made detection technology available to all technology companies because it’s going to take investment from everyone in our industry to prevent this harm.”

A Snap spokesperson said: “The exploitation of any member of our community, especially young people, is illegal and prohibited by our policies. We think the increased number of reports from 144,095 in 2020 to 512,522 in 2021 is a result of improvements in our abuse imagery detection methods including our reporting processes and hash database. Preventing, detecting and removing abuse from our platform remains a priority.”

OnlyFans and Apple did not reply to requests for comment.


Alex Hern UK technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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