Police have not given enough priority to tackling online child sexual abuse, a watchdog has found.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) said in a review of Police Scotland’s approach to the problem that there was no “overarching strategic approach”.
It also said the police response was generally reactive rather than proactive and warned of an increase in so-called vigilante groups.
HMICS has made 10 recommendations, including that the force should undertake an online child sexual abuse “strategic threat assessment” to accurately identify the scale, nature and risk to children of such abuse.
Police Scotland said protecting children is a top priority and they will carefully consider the report.
Gillian Imery, HMICS chief inspector, said there are “real challenges” to capturing the true nature and extent of online child sexual abuse.
She said: “There is no dedicated analytical capability nor centralised intelligence assessment capability directed at online child sexual abuse.
“The lack of qualitative analytical and intelligence assessment hampers the force’s ability to identify future trends and developments, to formulate proactive responses, and to task specialist resources.
“There is very little proactive work being carried out in this area of criminality.”
She added: “One of the main proactive tactics would be employing the services of undercover online specialist officers, however, this rarely happens.
“Almost half of the online grooming cases emanate from the activities of online child abuse activist groups (vigilante groups), who are unregulated and untrained.
“A more robust proactive capability on the part of Police Scotland would reduce the opportunities for these groups to operate.”
The report also said there was “an acknowledgement by Police Scotland that online child sexual abuse has not been given sufficient prioritisation”.
Online child sexual abuse, which can include the taking, distributing or viewing of indecent images of children, online grooming, inciting children to commit sexual acts online and live streaming of sexual abuse, has risen significantly in recent years.
Police Scotland figures in the report showed the number of online child abuse referrals rose from 141 in 2013 to 1,961 by the end of last year.
It also reports a 65% increase in the number of recorded offences of communicating indecently with a child over the period, from 359 offences in 2013-14 to 592 in 2018-19.
Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, lead for crime and operations at Police Scotland, said: “Protecting children in Scotland is a top priority and we know that reports of online child sexual abuse, committed by sexual predators here in Scotland and worldwide, continue to rise exponentially.
“The impact of child sexual abuse can be devastating for children, young people and their families.
“Cyber-enabled crime is placing an ever-increasing demand on policing in Scotland and elsewhere.
“We have introduced new processes and reprioritised our resources to identify and understand its extent and to inform our investigative response and preventative strategies.”
He added: “To effectively tackle child sexual abuse we have strengthened our resources, particularly in specialist departments in order to meet these increased demands.
“It is essential in an ever-increasing digital world, despite limited funding, we continue to invest in both resources and new technologies to support our officers, giving them the best tools and confidence to keep pace with what is a complex area of investigation.
“Our officers investigate online sexual abuse on a daily basis and are as vital a part of front-line policing as the officers who patrol our streets.”
He said officers continue to work collaboratively with national and international partners.
Joanna Barrett, policy and public affairs manager for NSPCC Scotland, said: “Children’s safety in the online space is one of the biggest challenges facing today’s society and an issue that the NSPCC has been at the forefront of campaigning to improve.
“Police figures show that recorded sexual crimes are on the rise, with a large proportion of the increase being due to online offences.
“So it is vital that Police Scotland prioritises online child sexual abuse and invests sufficient resources to effectively tackle this kind of offending.
“However, law enforcement is only part of the solution – it is imperative that online harms laws are brought in imminently so that tech companies are forced to make their platforms safe so that children stop being groomed, sexually abused and exposed to harm on their sites on a daily basis.”