Unlikely Heroes in The Fight Against CSAM: The Internet Watch Foundation Analysts

On 20th December 2016, an anonymous report was made through http://aarambhindia.org/report – India’s 1st Internet Hotline to Report Online Child Sexual Abuse Imagery. The report was passed on to IWF for analysis and action. It was found that the content reported was of the most severe kind. It depicted baby boys and girls of mixed ethnicities being subjected to violence and rape. The webpage that hosted the content contained 200 more videos. It was hosted in Russia. Less than 24 hours after the report was made on the India portal, the videos were taken down.

That is the story of just one of thousands of reports made on the India portal since its launch in September 2016. According to the IWF Annual Report 2017, in an effort to rid the internet of child sexual abuse material, they assess a webpage every 5 minutes and come across positively-identified material every 9 minutes. It a staggering statistic especially when one thinks about the fact that each of these reports is individually looked at by a person who sits at the Internet Watch Foundation offices in Cambridge, UK.

It is not easy to imagine someone whose job consists of sitting in their cubicle sifting through and analyzing child sexual abuse material from across the internet. It isn’t the kind of thing that an average nervous system would be able to handle on an everyday basis. It feels like a job meant only for the very put-together-and-extremely-sorted.

But the first thing the analyst of the Indian portal does when we ask her about her job is dispel the notion that her profession makes her any kind of special.

“It’s just a regular office with regular cubicles and regular people,” she insists

At first glance, it is indeed a pastel colored happy looking space that could function as ‘any office.’ It is easy to overlook the extraordinary precision with which it has been designed to ensure that no unauthorized person would ever get a glimpse of the content being analyzed on their monitors.

The analysts who work in the room share no particular qualification or background. They can be single or married, mothers & fathers or without children. They can be teachers or technologists or ex-armed forces. All they have in common are the right motivations to rid the internet of child sexual abuse imagery and make it a safer place.

Hinged as it is on the notion of ‘motivation’, hiring a new analyst is a critical process that takes over 3 months. Cold calls and CVs are not considered. All applications are collected through a dedicated page on the IWF website that asks for general information, followed by the key question – “Why do you want to work as an analyst?”

The entries are crunched and a shortlist is created. The selected candidates are evaluated along the parameters for resilience, risk, support system and motivations.

This is followed by a formal interview. Post which, potential candidates are exposed to child sexual abuse material in a controlled environment.

“What you see is never what you have ever imagined,” says our analyst. “The viewing session starts with mainstream pornography followed by Category C child sexual abuse imagery (erotic posing) which intensifies into category B (non-penetrative sexual assault) and then Category A (violence/penetrative sexual assault)… A lot of people tend to drop out at this stage.”

The candidates who move into the next round have to undergo medical and mental health assessments. IWF also conducts a thorough background checks through references. Once hired, new analysts go through a specially developed training program that helps them mentally process and cope with exposure to abusive images.

In office, the analyst spends their day looking through public & newsgroup reports, reviewing and tracing images, building hash lists (assigning known images with unique codes to help take down copies and prevent upload) and actively searching for criminal content on the internet.

On a regular day, the analysts are expected to take a minimum of 3 breaks where they have to leave their cubicle and office and spend time indulging in light recreation (a game of TT, Television etc). And on days where exposure to abusive imagery is particularly high, like when the analyst is hashing images, they are expected to take a break every one hour. Additionally, the analysts also have to undergo periodic counselling.

Despite danger of working so close to traumatic material, our analyst describes a regular office with team meetings (held if there is a confusion regarding a decision to be made on a report) and away days (where the analysts get to spend time with the rest of the IWF team). There is occasional tedium (scanning an entire video to catch the few seconds of child sexual abuse imagery spliced with).

And there are times when the whole room floods with happiness. Taking down the rogue website with 200 videos was one such moment. She describes another report that helped the police trace and rescue a child undergoing abuse. And another that helped put a serial child sex offender behind bars.

“It is these moments that help us understand what we are working towards. They inspire us to continue in our efforts,” says the analyst.

Part of the analyst’s profile is that they remain anonymous- their names and identities will not be made public. But everyday, they are out there, making the internet a safer space by combating the issue of online child sexual abuse imagery at the front-lines.

All this inevitably makes us insist that they are some kind of ‘unlikely heroes’. But what makes them remarkable is their dogged insistence otherwise.

“We are just doing our jobs,” our analyst repeats.

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