Tuesday, 24th November 2020

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has successfully brought one of the most prolific child sexual abuse offenders to justice for crimes committed online against children in the UK and abroad, highlighting the central role of evidence from social media companies and joining a growing number of children’s charities, child rights advocates and public officials calling for Facebook to urgently halt plans to implement end-to-end encryption which leaves children at significant risk online. 

Yesterday at Ipswich Crown Court, David Nicholas Wilson admitted 96 offences against 51 young boys aged four to 14 between May 2016 and April 2020. However the NCA says it has evidence that Wilson approached ‘more than 5,000 children globally’ and received sex abuse material from as many as 500 boys.

Wilson pretended to be a teenage girl online, using multiple fake identities to contact and groom male victims on Facebook and other social media platforms. 

Children were groomed into trusting Wilson, who they believed to be a teenage girl, until they exchanged sexual images of themselves. Wilson then used these images to blackmail the children into sending more extreme images and videos of themselves.

The NCA reports that Wilson blackmailed some victims to abuse younger siblings and friends and that he shared some of the abuse images with his victims’ friends, leaving several children suicidal.

Wilson was identified and investigated in 2017 after Facebook detected child sexual abuse imagery on its platform and referred the cases to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a USA-based organisation that receives referrals of child sexual abuse cases from technology platforms and works with law enforcement around the world to identify the victims and perpetrators.

NCMEC then referred the case to the UK’s NCA, who investigated Wilson and found substantial evidence of his crimes. NCMEC later made more referrals to the NCA after finding many more cases involving Wilson.

The NCA said that Facebook material comprised 90 referrals to them from NCMEC and that this information was “crucial” to bringing Wilson to justice. The NCA highlighted that plans to encrypt its Facebook's Messenger service means many other offenders are likely to go undetected. This is because the end-to-end encryption plans will leave Facebook unable to monitor private conversations for illegal and harmful content and activity such as child sexual abuse.

They join a number of children’s charities, child rights advocates and public officials calling for Facebook to urgently halt plans to implement end-to-end encryption which, in its current form, leaves children at significant risk. Some of those who have raised concerns about Facebook’s plans include the UK Home Office, the European Commission, the Australian E-Safety Commissioner and a coalition of child rights organisations that includes NCMEC, the ECPAT International Network and the NSPCC.

The NCA also highlighted the lengthy and complex legal process that took two years to complete due to the transnational nature of the case – while Wilson was located in the UK, many victims were located abroad and evidence was required from the social media platforms Wilson used, which are based in the USA.

Rob Jones, NCA Director of Threat Leadership, said: 

“This was a major investigation which has brought a very dangerous offender to justice.

“It’s chilling to think Wilson wouldn’t have been caught if Facebook had already implemented their end-to-end encryption plans which will entirely prevent access to message content.

“The NCA, wider law enforcement and child safety groups are clear that the move will turn the lights out for policing and effectively provide cover for offenders such as Wilson.

“Facebook Messenger is already protected by strong encryption that still enables the company to detect grooming and known abuse images.

“It was Facebook’s initial identification of Wilson’s accounts in June and July 2017 which provided the intelligence that started this investigation.

“Content obtained from Facebook Messenger conversations was also crucial throughout the operation. Had that content been end-to-end encrypted, there is a real risk that justice would not have been served and Wilson would still be abusing victims today.”

Patricia Durr, Chief Executive of ECPAT UK, said:

“We’re grateful to the National Crime Agency and its partners abroad for bringing this perpetrator of such horrific crimes against children at such an unprecedented scale to justice.

“This case demonstrates the importance of international cooperation to address these crimes and why we’ve joined many others in calling for tech companies to join the fight against child abuse as well as why Facebook must urgently halt its plans on end-to-end encryption.

“We welcome the ongoing partnerships between global law enforcement agencies, organisations set up to protect children and social media platforms. These partnerships are having a real impact on the ground and protecting countless children from further harm.

“However, we’re concerned about the UK’s loss of access to international law enforcement mechanisms post-Brexit, which will impact the UK’s ability to identify child victims of exploitation and investigate offences. We urge the government to urgently address how it will resolve this issue so that we can ensure children everywhere are safe and offenders are stopped in their tracks.”

ENDS

Notes

For more information on the loss of international law enforcement mechanisms post-Brexit and action needed to ensure the UK can continue keeping children safe, read our joint briefing with The Children’s Society. 

Press contact

Sinead Geoghegan, Communications and Media Manager, ECPAT UK, [email protected], 07402 113 985