ANU online child exploitation report calls for clarity

8 December 2016

It's a subject that no-one wants to touch, for obvious reasons. It's one of those things a lot of people think it's best not to think about, rather than actually approach.

A new report by criminology students at The Australian National University into combatting online child exploitation material has found there is confusion among experts about how to best combat the global problem.

The study, with the input of the Australian Government's Office of the Children's E-Safety Commissioner, aimed to identify relationships between online and offline offending; assess emerging areas and trends; and review regulatory, educational and collaborative approaches to combatting child exploitation material.

"It became apparent while researching child exploitation material prevention that the effectiveness of current methods remains unclear," the report says.

"There are many "best practice" methods readily available, however few of these approaches have undergone formal evaluations to assess effectiveness.

"There are many ways to define what constitutes a 'positive difference' in child exploitation material prevention, however little has been done to determine which methods make the greatest difference."

Students Stephanie Orlando, Katie Skinner and Don Maxim used the ANU Cybercrime Observatory computer lab to assess web sites and blogs, apps and virtual reality, as well as read relevant studies.

Stephanie became involved after approaching School of Sociology Professor of Criminology, Rod Broadhurst, for some research experience. He suggested the project, after a meeting with former E-Safety Commissioner Alastair MacGibbon, which he also supervised.

"It was great to work with a small team on interesting areas that I would not have researched in my standard degree," Stephanie, who's studying a Bachelor of Criminology, recalls.

Don says one reason for a lack of consensus about what constitutes best-practice at countering the problem, is a disinclination to discuss the material.

"We haven't seen the effects of technology such as virtual reality, tele-dildonics [remotely-operated sex toys] and robotics on the wider society," the Bachelor of Criminology/Bachelor of Psychology double degree student says.

"It's a subject that no-one wants to touch, for obvious reasons. It's one of those things a lot of people think it's best not to think about, rather than actually approach.

"But it's something that should be approached, in an academic and governmental sense, to form a best-practice [response]."

One highlight for Katie Skinner was having the opportunity to work with an outside institution, the eSafety Commissioner, which is directly involved in the topic.

"We've collaborated with a group of people who have the power to influence where this goes," she says.

Professor Broadhurst says he had a great experience working with the students, who made the Cybercrime lab buzz.

"It's been great to have young people in the thick of the digital revolution having a look at problems from that perspective," he says.

"Sharon Trotter from the Commissioner's Office says she thinks the report's a great read, and is really pleased with the level of engagement."

The students have also been studying their peers' Wifi internet usage to assess online risks such as spear-phishing attempts and will soon finalise their report.

In 2017 they will write a report on behalf of the Korean Institute of Criminology and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on cyber-terrorism in the world, focusing on the Asia Pacific region.