Technology companies reported a record 45 million online photos and videos of child abuse last year, that number was less than a million just five years ago, and is more than double what was reported the previous year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A New York Times investigation found that the explosion in explicit imagery has largely been made possible by the tech industry’s slow and inadequate response to predators co-opting their platforms. The dark web now accounts for only a fraction of reports of abuse; the images are now almost entirely trafficked through tech companies based in the United States, the Times reports. Predators use platforms as mundane as Facebook Messenger, Microsoft’s Bing, and Dropbox. Tech companies have long known their platforms were being utilized by predators, but many of them often looked the other way, the Times reports. Tech companies are not legally required to look for images of child abuse on their platforms; they are only required to report when they are discovered.
Predators mask their locations by connecting to virtual private networks, and hide their messages by using encryption techniques, often making their hard drives impenetrable. “People who traffic in child exploitation materials are on the cutting edge of technology,” said Susan Hennessey, a former lawyer at the National Security Agency who researches cybersecurity at the Brookings Institution. Law enforcement agencies dedicated to the issue have been chronically underfunded, even as the number of reported cases skyrockets. This year, the Department of Homeland Security diverted nearly $6 million from its cybercrimes units, which encompasses child exploitation, to immigration enforcement—cutting 40 percent of the units’ discretionary budget.