There are a lot of dark corners out there on the web, and new data sheds some light on one of them: The amount of websites that accept cryptocurrency as a payment for child sexual abuse material has doubled nearly every year since 2018, according to the Internet Watch Foundation.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a UK-based nonprofit that seeks to minimize the spread of sexual abuse content on the Internet, and IWF found 250,000 websites that contained child sexual abuse material in 2021. Of those, at least 1,014 accepted cryptocurrency to access or purchase images and videos of children being sexually abused. In 2018, 81 sites were found. In 2019, 221 sites were found. In 2020, 468 websites were found. That’s a two-fold increase every year.
“We are seeing cryptocurrency being used to pay for the distribution of abusive images and the online sexual exploitation of children, with perpetrators believing they can hide behind the anonymity of these virtual currencies,” said Detective Inspector Darren Young, from the Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation unit at the UK Metropolitan Police as quoted by IWF.
As a result, the IWF has announced the formation of a crypto unit to tackle this growing issue, and the foundation says that they’ve already been receiving requests for information from law enforcement departments from New Zealand to Austria. This crypto unit scours the internet for child sexual abuse material, and documents all information pertaining to the media, website, server location, and payment methods.
“If criminals are seeking to profit from selling these images, we note everything we see on a website or forum’s payment pages, such as the wording used, the virtual currency and the amount, whether it’s a daily, weekly or annual charge, and the cryptocurrency wallet address of the provider,” said an anonymous crypto unit analyst.
IWF says that Coinbase—one of the largest crypto exchange platforms—has apparently used the nonprofit’s data in the past to snuff out potentially illegal activity on their platform—identifying more than 6,500 potential bad actors. Coinbase was also able to find and shutdown website operators distributing CSAM.
Cryptocurrency as a whole has been embroiled in plenty of controversy and criminal activity—whether directly or indirectly—but the use of it to purchase media depicting child sexual abuse is probably the darkest example.