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19 February 2020

ACIC CEO Press Club Address - Child Exploitation

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission

Thank you Sabra.  Minister Dutton, members of the press, ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for attending.

It’s great to be here today with my colleagues Nicole Rose and Reece Kershaw.  Collaboration across law enforcement and intelligence agencies is key to tackling serious and organised crime and especially when countering child sexual exploitation and abuse.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission works with our partners to help prevent criminal activity and respond to crime affecting Australia.   By working together we have the best chance to target these criminals— however, as the digital environment evolves, so does the threat. 

Just a little bit of context.  Serious and organised crime costs Australia an estimated $47.4 billion every year.   The ACIC assesses that 70 per cent of Australia’s organised criminal threats are based offshore or have strong offshore links.

In recognition of this global threat, the ACIC’s Australia Priority Organisation Target (or APOT) list focuses on the highest threat serious and organised crime targets impacting Australia—this is a dynamic list and currently contains 18 named entities.    All but one of these top‑tier targets, both Australian and non‑Australian, are based offshore.

Serious and organised crime groups are better organised, better resourced and more than ever being run like multinational corporations more than ever before with communication a key to their success. These criminals are motivated by profit and will engage in any activity that increases their bottom line, including child sexual exploitation and abuse.

The law enforcement and intelligence community faces a growing challenge in infiltrating and disrupting the activities of organised crime and child exploitation syndicates. Their use of the dark web and encrypted technologies to obfuscate their identity and facilitate high-volume offending on a global scale has become the new status quo for these criminals.    

New and world-leading research in this field continues to drive home these findings. Today the Australian Institute of Criminology will release a new paper which, in the first of its kind, analyses data on payments that were likely made by Australians for child sexual abuse streaming based in the Philippines.

In this paper, AFP information on criminals operating in the Philippines was overlaid with AUSTRAC knowledge of financial payments, and ACIC criminal history data to gain insight into Australians live streaming child sexual abuse, their criminal history and demographic data.

The study looked at 256 unique individuals who made over 2,700 transactions to known live streaming facilitators in the Philippines. The paper highlights is livestreaming of child sexual abuse leaves very little online trace or record as well as how technology is enabling its proliferation, making it increasingly difficult for law enforcement to combat this devastating crime.

Communication technology is at the heart of law enforcement’s problem.

Technology is attractive to criminals as it can provide anonymity, obfuscate activities and locations, and increase their global reach by connecting them to potential victims and information around the world.

The online environment enables crime to be committed remotely, with less resources, and with less chance of detection.

Sadly, history tells us that facilitators of child exploitation material frequently act as early adopters of new technologies to prevent detection of their activities and platforms by law enforcement.  

Communications technologies, such as encryption, are increasingly exploited by criminals to conceal their illegal activities—90 per cent of the ACIC’s current investigations now involve encryption—for example, we see an ever increasing use of high-end encrypted smartphones that are far more sophisticated than your traditional over-the-top applications.

In practical terms, this means that we simply cannot see what these destructive criminal groups are saying to one another.

We no longer have just our hands tied behind our back—we are also wearing earmuffs and an eye patch.

Not only are criminals concealing their communications, but they are also finding new platforms to conduct and grow their operations. Australia’s use of dark web marketplaces is expected to increase into the future, given the increasing popularity of online trading and the perceived anonymity such marketplaces provide.

How did it come to this? In 1979 when telecommunications interception became lawful under Commonwealth legislation, an agency could expect that it would be able to lawfully intercept most, if not all, of a criminal target’s communications—it was quite simple one number and a landline.

It is safe to say that, in 2020, this expectation is no longer a reality. 

Multiple service or application providers may now be involved in any one criminal communication. Criminals commonly use multiple devices and applications to communicate, and free accounts can be established quickly and with no clear connection to real life identity.

The substantial and fast changes in the communications environment have rapidly eroded our ability to intercept communications and critically impacted our capabilities.

To address these escalating challenges we need to be open to considering new and better ways of countering the insidious business of crime. Modernising and adapting the regime which governs lawful access to communications is a fundamental first step.

Simply put right now our laws are not keeping up with technology. To ensure legislation maintains pace with the rate of adoption of new technology by criminals, it must be adaptable and arguably, technology agnostic.

In 2013 the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, after a long and in-depth inquiry, gave bi-partisan support to enable lawful interception and access based on particular communication attributes.

Adapting our approach could enable agencies to exclude or include particular communications within a service through relevant identifiers. This could include the time or location of a communication, or an identifier or address that uniquely identifies a service or account, such as an email address.

An attribute-based approach would offer additional privacy protections as well to innocent individuals using these platforms by better targeting communications which are known to belong to serious criminal threats.

Finally - as Australia advances, both in terms of increasing globalisation and use of digital platforms, so do the threats to our wellbeing—with none as serious as the threats to our children. The challenge is to ensure that our agencies are equipped with contemporary skills and technologies, backed by necessary powers, to combat criminal exploitation of encrypted technologies and the dark web—all of this of course coupled with the appropriate checks and balances that society rightly demands. 

In my view it is time to start the debate again.

Last updated
19 February 2020