Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). traditionally referred to as child sexual exploitation material or child pornography, is an old problem that has been amplified to an alarming extent via new technologies. The scale and impact of CSAM makes it difficult to address, but crime script analysis, is emerging as a pragmatic tool that can help investigators understand how perpetrators operate and prevent crimes from happening in the first place.

What is the scale and impact of CSAM?

CSAM is distributed and produced either on what is called the clear web or the dark web. The clear web refers to the portion of the Internet that is indexed by search engines like Google and is as such, easily accessible by public. The dark web refers to the segment of the Internet that is hidden from the public.

In 2019, the Internet Watch Foundation confirmed the existence of 132,676 URLs or web pages to contain, link to, or advertise CSAM across 4,956 domains traced to 58 countries – a 27 per cent increase since 2018. In addition, 288 new dark websites selling CSAM were identified – an increase of 238 per cent since 2018.

A report from the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units also indicated that the growth in online streaming of child sexual exploitation for financial gain has been facilitated by the expanding reach of 4G, and recently 5G in developing countries.

The scale of CSAM is particularly concerning given evidence indicating that many individuals who have never sexually abused a child before engaging with CSAM online will seek and have sexual contact with a child for a first time after engaging with CSAM on the dark web.

The negative psychological impacts that child sexual abuse can have on victims are well-known and include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, suicide and substance use disorders. Negative consequences can even be observed on the wellbeing of police investigators working in this field, including secondary traumatic stress disorder (e.g., intrusive imagery, flashbacks, nightmares and social withdrawal), increased generalised distrust of people and difficulty in relationships with partners and children.

Finally, the consequences of these crimes are also detrimental to the reputation and conduct of normal business for financial institutions and the broader economy, as seen with the Westpac Bank scandal in 2019.

How is CSAM being addressed?

There are several organisations dedicated to reducing online CSAM, such as the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), AUSTRAC, financial institutions, police and government agencies, . The complex and constantly evolving nature of our online lives, including social media and mobile devices make monitoring and protecting these spaces increasingly difficult. In this context, the world is in dire need of innovative approaches and methods to increase its capacity to address a phenomenon such as CSAM online.

Can crime script analysis help?

One unique approach to help address CSAM is called crime script analysis. Script analysis, based on the concept of schema, has its roots in cognitive science, rather than criminology. A schema is a cognitive structure that contains assumptions and expectations about the social world based on past behaviour and experience. We all are inhabited by different forms of schemas, which help us understand and interact in the social world. Specifically, the event schema is a knowledge structure that organises the sequence of actions step-by-step to adopt for a specific purpose. This is what we call a script. For instance, going to the cinema involves a script that will roughly look like the following: going to the cinema, searching for the movie, selecting the movie, choosing the seats, paying the tickets, getting the tickets, entering the room, finding the allocated seats, sitting, watching the movie, and leaving the cinema.

Script analysis can also be applied to look at the steps offenders take to commit crime. In the case of CSAM, we might ask: How do offenders operate to consume, distribute and produce CSAM online? Like a movie or novel, a crime script can be broken down by steps (or chapters in the case of a novel). Reading one chapter of a novel is clearly not sufficient to get the full storyline of the novel. However, reading the entire novel will reveal its full storyline. The same principle applies to crime – to fully understand how offenders operate, we need to get as close as possible to the full storyline underlying the commission of their crime.

There are two key reasons for using crime scripts. First, scripts offer a framework to break down and identify the step-by-step process involved in crime commission, which deepens our understanding of how offenders operate, and which is then used as a roadmap to guide investigations. Second, scripts can be used to pinpoint different intervention solutions that can be designed and applied at each step of the process to improve and facilitate crime disruption. In other words, each step of the process becomes a potential intervention-point. The more intervention-points, the more possibilities to disrupt the crime.

Script analysis is more than a textbook theory. It is a pragmatic tool that is already being applied to online CSAM with the collaboration of the AIC, police organisations and the ICMEC. The results are promising so far, and we are seeing how script analysis can guide organisations in their investigations and efforts to disrupt any form of crime.


Dr Benoit Leclerc

Dr Benoit Leclerc is an international leader on crime script analysis. He is leading the theoretical advancements of crime scripts and its translation to end users worldwide. Dr Leclerc has led several funded research projects using crime script analysis in Australia and Canada and currently leads this field on the significance of scholarly publications. Most recently, in collaboration with the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) and other Australian police agencies, he was the lead chief investigator of a project funded by the Australian Institute of Criminology on child sexual exploitation online.

Dr Leclerc is an Associate Professor in Griffith University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

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