Monitoring instead of deleting: Investigators often leave images of abuse online

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“Erasing instead of blocking” has been the political maxim in this country in the fight against depictions of child sexual abuse since the former Federal Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) failed a good ten years ago with her plan to set up a censorship infrastructure on the Internet. The federal government issues a report every year on the implementation of this principle. But according to their own account, the police lack the strength to implement the requirement appropriately.

According to research by ARD and Spiegel, the main problem is the Darknet. Pediatric criminal networks such as the “Boystown” platform, which was shut down by the German authorities in April, use the largely isolated part of the Internet. In relevant forums, however, they only publish – usually password-protected – download links for the illegal recordings, which they store in encrypted form on common storage services. The hosting providers usually do not know anything about the explosiveness of the stored materials.

In the “Boystown” case, the relevant links are reportedly available to the law enforcement officers, but the storage providers have apparently not been reported to this day. Photos and videos of the worst crimes against children stayed online. Individual operators have also confirmed this.

Hans-Joachim Leon, head of the “Violent and Sexual Offenses” group at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), admitted to reportersthat it is an “essential task also for the law enforcement authorities” to have files of abuse removed from the network. However, especially on the Darknet, they could not be deleted. “Our investigations are perpetrator-oriented,” justified the official. “We’re trying to get the users. We don’t collect links.” Leon referred to the human resources that reporting the content would take. These were then missing elsewhere.

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Until now it was only known that investigators leave relevant material online in individual cases in order to snap a trap for potential inquirers. According to the reports, the resource argument also seems to have been advanced: NDR journalists were able to show “that huge amounts could be removed from the darknet forums in a short time with a manageable amount of effort”. Around 80,000 links were collected in a forum and reported to the operators. The associated content was deleted within hours or a maximum of two days on all of the services contacted at home and abroad.

According to the latest deletion report by the government, the BKA and Internet Complaints Offices recorded a total of 6821 reports on depictions of child sexual abuse on the web in 2020. In 2019 there were 7,639 entries. Almost all of the content held in Germany could then be removed from the web within a week (98.6 percent). Because of the more complex procedure and the larger number of entities involved, deletion took a little longer abroad. After four weeks, the erasure rate was again 81 percent.

99 percent of the information passed on by the cooperation partners came from complaint offices such as that of the eco association of the Internet industry. The police themselves reported almost no relevant content on their own initiative.

Federal Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) welcomed the results in the summer of the concept of “deleting instead of blocking”. “Image or video material that documents crimes against children” should “under no circumstances be permanently available online,” added Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU). “The deletion is therefore indispensable”.

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The investigators will have to do a lot more work in the coming year. According to the “anti-hate law”, providers of social networks no longer only have to delete a complaint about illegal content, including depictions of abuse, but in severe cases also have to report the user’s IP address and port number to the BKA. In addition, the legislature has significantly expanded the criminal offenses and framework for child sexual abuse.

With a view to depictions of abuse, the EU Commission is also working on legal requirements in order to introduce a suspicion-independent and comprehensive message and chat control even for continuously encrypted messenger services such as WhatsApp, Signal and Threema with corresponding content scans. The interior ministers not only of the EU countries recently welcomed the heavily controversial project.


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