Indecent Images and the Dark Web in the UK

Written 9th April 2024 by Ruth Peters

In recent years, the rise of the dark web has presented unique challenges for law enforcement agencies around the world. Among the myriad of illicit activities that occur within the hidden corners of the internet, the distribution and possession of indecent images stand out as particularly concerning.

In this blog, we look at the laws governing indecent images with a specific focus on their implications in the realm of the dark web.

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a part of the internet that is not indexed by traditional search engines like Google or Bing. It is a subset of the deep web, which includes all parts of the internet not indexed by search engines. The dark web requires special software, configurations, or authorization to access, and it is often associated with illicit activities.

It’s important to note that not everything on the dark web is illegal; it also hosts forums, blogs, and other legitimate content. However, it is notorious for being a haven for illegal activities such as drug trafficking, weapons sales, hacking services, counterfeit currency, and various forms of cybercrime.

Access to the dark web is typically facilitated through specialized software like Tor (The Onion Router), which anonymizes users’ internet traffic by routing it through a series of servers, making it difficult to trace the origin. This anonymity attracts individuals seeking privacy and security, but it also provides cover for criminal activities. As a result, law enforcement agencies around the world closely monitor the dark web to combat illegal activities conducted there.

How is the dark web accessed?

Accessing the dark web requires specific software and configurations due to its anonymity and unindexed nature. Tor (The Onion Router) is the most common way to access the dark web.

Tor is a free, open-source software that allows users to browse anonymously by routing their internet traffic through a network of volunteer-operated servers.

The Dark Web Dimension

The dark web presents a unique challenge in combating the spread of indecent images. Due to its encrypted and anonymized nature, the dark web provides a haven for individuals seeking to evade law enforcement detection while engaging in illegal activities, including the distribution and consumption of indecent images.

Law Enforcement Response

Law enforcement agencies in the UK employ various strategies to address the presence of indecent images on the dark web including:

  • Specialized Units such as the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP), focus on combating online child sexual exploitation, including activities on the dark web.
  • Undercover Operations: Police may conduct undercover operations to infiltrate dark web forums and marketplaces, gather intelligence, and identify offenders.
  • International Collaboration: Given the global nature of the dark web, international collaboration is essential for investigating and prosecuting offenders across borders.

Do police monitor the dark web?

Law enforcement agencies do actively monitor the dark web to investigate and combat illegal activities. While the Tor network provides anonymity to users, it does not guarantee complete privacy or protection from the police.

Law enforcement agencies employ various techniques to monitor activities on the dark web. This may include deploying specialized software to identify illegal content, tracking digital footprints, infiltrating illicit marketplaces or forums, and conducting undercover operations.

Can the police track my activity on the dark web?

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may cooperate with law enforcement agencies to monitor network traffic and identify users engaging in criminal activities on the dark web. ISPs can log IP addresses and other identifying information, which may be used in investigations.

Law enforcement agencies may obtain warrants to monitor and intercept communications on the dark web. This allows them to gather evidence against individuals involved in criminal activity and build cases for prosecution. Law enforcement agencies have conducted operations to dismantle illegal marketplaces and forums on the dark web involving identifying administrators and users, seizing servers, and making arrests.

While the Tor network provides anonymity, users may still inadvertently reveal identifying information or engage in activities that compromise their anonymity. Law enforcement agencies can exploit vulnerabilities or mistakes made by users to trace their activities back to real-world identities.

Dark web investigations often involve collaboration between law enforcement agencies across different countries. This allows for the sharing of intelligence, resources, and expertise to address transnational criminal activities conducted on the dark web.

The law in relation to indecent images

Possession, distribution, and ‘making’ indecent images of children are criminal offences under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

‘Making’ indecent images

Section 1(1) (a) of the Protection of Children Act 1978 includes “to take, or permit to be taken [or to make], any indecent photograph [or pseudo-photograph] of a child”.

The following can amount to making indecent images;

  • opening an email attachment
  • downloading an indecent image
  • storing an image
  • accessing a website where an indecent image “pops up”

Possession of indecent images

It is illegal to possess, download, or store indecent images of children on any device under s.160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

Possession of indecent images means that the image(s) must be in the control or custody of the individual so that they are capable of accessing or in in a position to retrieve the images(s). The individual must know that they possess the image or group of images on the relevant device(s). However, knowledge of the content of these image(s) is not required.

Distribution Offences

Section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 makes it a criminal offence for a person to:

  • distribute or show indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs; or
  • to have in his possession indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs, with a view to their being distributed or shown by himself or others; or
  • publish or cause to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that the advertiser distributes or shows such indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs, or intends to do so.

Sharing, uploading, or distributing indecent images, whether through peer-to-peer  networks, social media, or other means, constitutes a criminal offence.

Conclusion

Overall, while the dark web offers a degree of anonymity, it is not immune to law enforcement scrutiny. Searching for, possession, distribution and downloading of indecent images on the dark web can lead to serious consequences, including arrest, investigation and subsequent prosecution for indecent image offences.

Article written by Ruth Peters

The law in relation to indecent images is complex and benefits from representation by specialist solicitors. At Olliers we have significant experience of dealing with indecent images cases involving access via the dark web.

If you require advice in relation to an indecent images investigation please contact our new enquiry team either by email to info@olliers.com, or by telephone on 020 3883 6790 (London) or 0161 834 1515 (Manchester) or by completing the form below and our new enquiry team will contact you.

Ruth Peters

Ruth Peters

Business Development Director

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