Crime News Service, Simon Johnson, scottish political editor: Sex criminals are using social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to carry out attacks against Scottish children including rape but many are not recorded by the police, according to a disturbing official report.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) conducted an audit that found 11.4 per cent of sex crimes had a “cyber element” but this proportion increased to 17.5 per cent in some parts of the country.
It discovered that the majority of sex crimes involved social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Oovoo, as well as online dating sites. The report concluded that some of the most popular social media networks used by children were “recurring vehicles for sexual crime”.
Among the offences committed were rape, sexual assault, causing a young child to participate in a sexual activity, communicating indecently, causing a young child to look at a sexual image, coercing a person into being present during a sexual activity, possession of child and extreme pornography, and grooming.
In one incident, an eight-year-old child received indecent images via a popular app on their smartphone. Other crimes involved young children being coerced to view adults engaging in sexual activity via their phone, or being bullied into taking and sending indecent images of themselves.
Although many parents are aware of the need for internet restrictions on their home computer to protect their children, the report said it was “clear” that many of the sex crimes targeted at children were committed via apps on smartphones and tablets.
However, HMICS warned that many of the incidents are not recorded by Police Scotland because they are committed by adults living elsewhere in the world. Instead the location of the crime is deemed to be the place from which the criminal sent the communication or images.
Derek Penman, HM Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, said: “Criminals are increasingly exploiting opportunities from the internet to commit crime.
“As Police Scotland develops its response to these new and emerging threats, it is likely that crimes including fraud and other cyber-enabled offences will increase significantly and impact on the historic reductions in reported crime.”
It emerged earlier this month that more than 1,900 offences involving possession of indecent images of children were reported by police in Scotland over the last three years. This was the highest total of any UK force and included a 17 per cent increase last year.
However, the HMICS crime audit, which examined whether crimes are being recorded correctly, found more than a quarter of cyber-related sex offences did not result in a police report.
Highlighting the fact that many of the perpetrators are outside Scotland, and their actions are not recorded as a crime, it said: “This is a concern given that statistics may be used to develop policy, resource policing and design victim support or education services.”
The audit also examined several cases where young Scots shared indecent images of themselves and others, actions that amounted to a crime.
HMICS called on Police Scotland and ministers to work with the major social media companies to highlight the risks to children and consider what additional safeguards could be put in place.
Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick said: “The growth of cyber-related crime is a challenge for society as a whole.
“It will require new approaches and effective collaboration with our partners and communities to prevent and investigate types of cyber-related crime which can range from complex fraud investigations to predatory sexual offending.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said a range of measures are being take forward to prevent child sexual exploitation and improve online safety.
He added: “We are also currently working across government to update our internet safety action plan and are taking steps to ensure the refreshed action plan is linked to work being taken forward in schools.”
Facebook declined to comment but it has a zero tolerance policy on child and sexual exploitation, with any instances discovered reported to the police and the content quickly removed.
Twitter declined to comment but it has a policy of instantly removing child exploitation images, reporting them to the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and suspending the relevant account.
Instagram also declined to comment but it has strict community guidelines and has facilities that allow users to report actions that make them feel uncomfortable. It also has a zero tolerance policy on content or behaviour that puts youngsters at risk.