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Grooming cases at record high amid online safety laws delay | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


  • By Shiona McCallum
  • Technology reporter

9 minutes ago

Image source, Getty Images

Tens of thousands of online grooming crimes have been recorded during the wait for updated online safety laws.

Campaigners are urging tech companies and MPs to back the Online Safety Bill and are calling for no more hold-ups.

The bill, which aims to crack down on illegal content, has faced repeated delays and amendments.

Children’s charity the NPSCC says 34,000 online grooming crimes had been recorded by UK police forces since it first called for tougher laws in 2017.

The proposed new rules state that tech companies should be able to access the content of private messages if there is a child safety concern.

Many popular apps offer an encrypted messaging service, which means that only the sender and recipient can view the content. The tech firms themselves cannot see it.

However, these privacy functions are available to everybody, and the platforms say they offer extra protection to victims of domestic abuse, journalists and political activists, among others.

They also say that if they build in a backdoor, it will make their services less secure for all.

Aoife, 22, from East Kilbride, was exploited on two popular messaging apps when she was 15 by an adult male who pretended to be a teenager.

The man convinced her to send him images of herself and blackmailed her with these to control her behaviour.

When his demands became increasingly intense and frightening, Aoife plucked up the courage to tell her mum and teachers, who helped them to report it to the police.

‘Petrified’

“I was petrified,” Aoife told BBC News. “It was something silly like two o’clock in the morning that I remember sitting in my room and all I wanted was my mum, but you can’t go in then tell your mum that you’ve just done this, and you’re in a lot of trouble.

“It’s scary. I felt like I was the only person in the world at the time.”

She said she felt “guilty” that no-one else knew what she was going through but also annoyed with herself because she was a “smart girl”.

After an investigation by the National Crime Agency in 2022, Aoife’s abuser was jailed for 18 years.

He pleaded guilty to 65 offences relating to 26 girls and women aged between 12 and 22.

Citing data from 42 UK police forces, the NSPCC said that 6,350 offences related to sexual communication with a child were recorded last year – a record high.

The new research shows that 5,500 offences took place against primary school-age children, meaning under-12s made up a quarter of known victims.

The charity has previously stated that messaging apps are the “front line” of the offence.

However, ministers have recently had to defend the Online Safety Bill against a backlash from some tech companies, who argue the law will undermine the use of encryption to keep online communications private.

Some platforms are threatening to leave the UK altogether rather than comply with the new rules.

Kate Robertson, senior research associate at Citizen Lab – an organisation where researchers study security on the internet – told the BBC that “we shouldn’t be drilling more holes in internet safety”.

She said encryption “is an important source of safety for vulnerable individuals and it’s also an important safety net for privacy itself”.

Rani Govender, senior policy officer at the NSPCC, said: “We don’t think there’s a trade-off between safety and privacy, we think it’s about investing in those technical solutions which we know are out there, that can deliver for the privacy and safety of all users on these services.”

But the NSPCC also wants assurances that the legislation will regulate new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI).

Chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, Susie Hargreaves, echoed this, calling for robust safety features to be brought in.

“Without them, end-to-end encryption will be a smokescreen for abusers, helping them hide what they’re doing, and enabling them to continue to hurt children and destroy young lives,” she said.

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