A two-year international investigation led by authorities from New Zealand has identified more than 90,000 online accounts possessing or trading child sexual abuse material and hundreds of global arrests.
The operation spanned 13 countries, led to investigations in 836 cases worldwide and safeguarded at least 146 children internationally, said authorities who announced the impact of the probe, codenamed “Operation H”, on Wednesday.
At least 71 suspects were identified in New Zealand, while 46 arrests were made, with 12 investigations still in progress in the country, according to local media reports.
Hundreds of other offenders overseas, in countries ranging from Britain, Canada, Spain and Slovenia, were arrested by authorities apart from the New Zealand arrests.
The operation was sparked by an alert from an internet service provider in September 2019 that found tens of thousands of people using its services to share child sexual abuse material.
Many investigative agencies from several countries soon after, joined hands to identify and investigate the offenders.
These agencies included New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Australian Federal Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Britain’s National Crime Agency, Europol and Interpol.
The arrested offenders included those working in positions that involved certain levels of trust.
One of the offenders from New Zealand included a children’s sports coach and teacher aid, reported the New Zealand Herald.
Another arrested offender admitted to traveling to southeast Asia where he would arrange with parents to sexually exploit their children on camera, according to reports.
New Zealand’s DIA said in a statement that this was “the largest and most challenging online child exploitation operation led out of New Zealand”.
Similarly, authorities in the UK arrested 450 people, many of whom included people working in “positions of trust”, said Sarah Blight, deputy director at the Child Sexual Abuse Threat department of the UK’s National Crime Agency.
Those arrested in the UK included people working in not just primary schools and nurseries, but also law enforcement, medical-related professions and who worked as religious officials.
“Other suspects were also in the process of applying for jobs working or volunteering with children,” Ms Blight pointed out.
A couple arrested in the UK was named by investigators as 36-year-old Robert Stanley and 34-year-old Danielle Schofield.
Tim Houston, the lead investigator for the global operation, said several people who viewed such material would “go on to physically offend against children”.
“It is imperative that we are able to bring them to justice before they are able to do more damage. This is not a victimless crime, every time this material is viewed, that child is re-victimised,” he said.
“I commend the ongoing support of our law enforcement partners domestically and across the world for their dedication and hard work. This operation will have an impact on the global networks that deal in the most horrific and damaging material,” he added.