Police chief admits possibility of working with online vigilantes but says tech firms must do more on child-protection
Data shows evidence gathered by self-styled paedophile hunters is becoming increasingly prevalent in criminal cases as senior officer admits 'I am not winning that moral argument'
Figures gathered from 44 police forces finds that evidence provided by online paedophile hunters was used in 44% of child-grooming cases last year
The child-protection lead for the National Police Chiefs Council has conceded that law enforcement is “going to have to look at” the possibility of working with online vigilante groups. But Simon Bailey, who also serves as chief constable of Norfolk Constabulary, has further called on “tech companies to meet their moral and social responsibility” in combatting grooming and child abuse.
Individuals and groups operating as self-styled paedophile hunters – who pose as children online in a bid to entrap sex offenders – have become more prominent in recent years. And data gathered by the BBC shows that evidence collected by these entities is being increasingly widely used in court cases for the crime of meeting a child after sexual grooming.
Freedom of Information requests sent to 44 UK police forces reveal that, in 2014, 20 out of 176 such cases included evidence gathered by paedophile hunters. By 2016 that figure had risen to 114 cases, out of total of 259. This equates to a rise in the proportion of cases using evidence provided by the online vigilantes from 11.4% to 44%.
When asked if there could come a day when the police actively worked with online paedophile hunters, Bailey said: "I think that’s something I am potentially going to have to look at, yes”.
“But it comes with real complexity,” he added. “Not least of all the psychological screening that the professionals go through to make sure that [they are] not being adversely affected by this. Whilst I’m going to have to look at it, those risks are really significant, and they cannot be understated.”
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Following the broadcast of his comments on the BBC programme Inside Out, Bailey took to Twitter to add that he believed that technology companies must better work with the police to ensure children’s safety online.
“[Paedophile hunters] are not the solution to the threat of grooming,” he said. “The solution is the service providers ensuring children can use the web safely. We are doing more to protect children than ever before, [but] we cannot meet the threat alone.”
Bailey added: “The time has come for tech companies to meet their moral and social responsibility.”
The police has always discouraged the activities of paedophile hunters and, when asked if calling on their evidence in criminal cases represented a “conflicting message”, Bailey denied that it did.
“The challenge I have is, while I have been sending this message, unfortunately – for whatever reason – these groups continue and carry on doing their work,” he told the BBC. “How many times has an operation been compromised, how many times has evidence been lost when one of their stings, or one of their entrapment operations, goes wrong?”
He added: “My message – ‘don’t go and compromise our operation’ – hasn’t been taken on board. I’m not going to condone these groups, and I would encourage them all to stop. But I recognise that I am not winning that conversation. I am not winning that moral argument.”
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