By Civil Service World

20 Apr 2023

Child sexual abuse is one of the most disturbing offences the National Crime Agency deals with. But as the NCA’s Dr Lauren Wilson explains, help from partners in the private sector has made a huge difference to the number of suspects arrested and to the safeguarding of children both nationally and internationally

You recently won a Civil Service Award for your partnership working with BAE Systems. Can you tell us a little about what your team does at the NCA?

I lead a team of intelligence officers who work to identify people who commit child sexual abuse (CSA) offences. The NCA’s remit is serious and organised crime, which means that my team focuses on some of the highest-harm CSA offenders in the UK and internationally. We estimate that there are between 550,000 and 850,000 adults in the UK who pose varying degrees of sexual risk to children. This includes a broad spectrum of offences, from downloading and sharing indecent images of children to contact offending. 

It is not always easy to quantify what “highest-harm” offender means, as any crime against children is significant. At the NCA, our team has dealt with a variety of horrific offenders – sometimes it’s one individual who has managed to commit offences against a number of children. Other times, it’s a volume of offenders all using the same method of offending against children. In those cases, we manage to identify significant numbers of offenders simultaneously and we work closely with police forces to provide this information in a way they can act on. Together, we have been able to more than double the number of children safeguarded and the number of offenders arrested each month over the last five years. In all situations, no matter the method of offending, our aim is always to safeguard and protect children. 

What challenges were you facing when you approached BAE Systems for this project? 

The NCA has partnered with BAE Systems for many years, as they are also dedicated to tackling the CSA threat. Over the years, BAE and NCA have been able to produce some fantastic results, but more recently, the NCA faced a di cult problem in our fight against the CSA threat. 

The NCA had received a vast amount of data which, if analysed properly, would enable us to identify a large volume of offenders both in the UK and internationally. Normally, when we receive an individual report that indicates a CSA offence, it would be assigned to a case team. The team would ensure the accuracy of the report and identify any missing information required to make a successful arrest and prosecute the responsible party. 

Ensuring the accuracy of all the information we receive is of the utmost importance. False accusations of child abuse, even if they are later revoked, can have a severe and lasting impact on the lives of the individual and their family. At the same time, not acting swiftly allows the abuse to continue or even escalate. When the data processing is done by individual officers, it can take anywhere between a couple of weeks to several months (and this is assuming there are no complications). With the volume of data we had, it would have taken the NCA over 10 years to process it – and that doesn’t even take into account the chance of us having to reprioritise should a more urgent case come in. 

BAE developed some solutions to help you – can you tell us how the teams worked together to do this?

One of the NCA team members has described the initial process as being locked in a room with one of the engineers from BAE Systems and knowing they had to come up with a solution before they could be let out. While this isn’t quite the reality, it was very much a situation of NCA officers sitting with a BAE Systems engineer and describing the problem we had. 

There was some back and forth – the NCA officers represented the subject matter experts on CSA offending, whereas BAE Systems provided options for expediting our data processing. BAE Systems would test options for data processing and NCA officers would dip-sample and review to assess the accuracy of the material, ensuring it was processed in line with our legislative obligations. 

It has been a fluctuating project as well. There were times when we could work at a slower pace, but there were also weeks when the project required constant feedback. 

The continual input and collaboration from the numerous people over the years has been phenomenal, and it has been a substantial piece of work. 

How did working in partnership change the project? 

When you are working to combat child sexual abuse, it is sometimes difficult to quantify how much time that means. A general, non-complex case would take the average police or NCA officer between a couple of weeks to a month to develop. This is taking into account competing demands, and the need to drop everything and refocus your time if there is something more urgent (and with child abuse, there’s quite a lot of urgency). I think it was once calculated that if we had the whole department working on just one data set, it would still take us five to 10 years to complete everything with the necessary attention to detail and accuracy. 

What did you achieve together?

I can estimate that the work with BAE Systems has enabled us to expedite identification of suspects and safeguarding of children nationally and internationally. I can’t give an exact figure, as some of the work is still ongoing, but within the UK I can estimate it has assisted in nearly 1,000 arrests. But really, how can you put a figure on prevention? The sooner we are able to identify and arrest a CSA offender, the sooner we can prevent a child from ever being abused, or stop abuse from continuing. When you consider that the work has helped us reduce the time it takes us to process and identify suspects from years to months… even if it’s a day less, it is worth it. 

And what have been the longer-term or wider effects of this work? 

We’ve had a substantial impact in the UK, but it is also worth noting the international impact. As a result of this work, we were able to send intelligence on approximately 20,000 CSA offenders to over 100 countries internationally within a couple of hours. While I cannot comment on the full impact of the international work that has been assisted by this project, we have been able to demonstrate that no CSA offender across the globe is safe from prosecution. This is a global problem, and we have to approach it with global collaboration. The impacts of this project are still ongoing and we continue to have results from the work started by the project even to this day. 

This project was part of a wider relationship – can you tell us a bit more about other ways you work with BAE Systems and the benefits to each side? 

Within the CSA unit, we have a contracted BAE Systems engineer who is embedded in the team and works explicitly on the CSA threat. This has excellent benefits for both parties. It gives the BAE employee a snapshot into the unique problems we face in the realm of CSA, and they can often provide significant real-world impact through their work with us. It offers a unique insight into the issues law enforcement face in identifying offenders and safeguarding children. Putting in place a limited contract acts as a safeguard to the BAE employee – ensuring they do not experience burnout from prolonged exposure to CSA material – but it also enables diversity in knowledge and experience. This means we constantly get new perspectives on how to tackle the CSA threat.

More recently, BAE Systems have developed tools to capture material evidence of CSA suspects offending – saving the NCA officers valuable time and protecting their wellbeing from excessive exposure. The teams have also started to develop tooling to allow transcription from audio to text on CSA videos. This is essential when the NCA receives indecent imagery of children in different languages, or from very long videos, as it enables the intelligence teams to pinpoint where they need to start and prevents hour upon hour being spent reviewing indecent imagery.

What advice do you have for people who are building these productive partnerships with suppliers or external organisations? In particular, do you have any thoughts on how to build longer-term partnerships where appropriate? 

It is not always easy to build productive partnerships, as the most di cult part of it is understanding the value and perspectives that other partners bring – as well as your own value. Working with BAE Systems engineers, I often feel dwarfed by their knowledge and talent for technical innovation, but over time I have come to realise the value myself and other NCA officers bring. While the BAE Systems engineers have the technical expertise, my team brings the subject matter expertise of CSA offending – knowledge of legislation the NCA works within, how criminals operate in this arena, as well as greater understanding of the problem we are trying to fix. 

My main piece of advice is to not make assumptions, and even if you think the issue you are raising or trying to fix is simple (or too complicated!), starting the conversation can bring you into the realm of what is possible. I have had the privilege of working with several different engineers and each one has brought their own brand of expertise and perspective on the issues we at the NCA face, and we’ve been able to achieve some amazing results. 

While the players may have changed, the constant has been ensuring open conversations continue so we can take active steps toward this goal. 

Dr Lauren Wilson is an intelligence manager in the Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Team at the National Crime Agency

This article originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of Civil Service World. Read the full issue here

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