The use of cryptocurrency to buy online sexual and abusive content of children is on the rise. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) report that the number of websites accepting cryptocurrency as a method of payment for such content has doubled year on year since 2015, when their recording started.

Cryptocurrency is a digital currency that does not rely on banks to verify transactions. It enables anyone anywhere to send and receive payments. In the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority has oversight to check that ‘cryptoasset firms have effective anti-money laundering and terrorist financing procedures in place’ but generally cryptoassets themselves are not regulated. The use of cryptocurrency assists in perpetrators concealing their identity when purchasing child imagery.

The IWF have described this to be an ‘escalating problem’. In response to this issue, the IWF have developed a dedicated and specialist Crypto Unit. Part of their role is to record as much information as possible about the websites distributing child sexual imagery so that they can have them removed, but also to assist law enforcement agencies. Data collected includes ‘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.’

As the IWF operates globally, they work with law enforcement and other agencies all over the world to combat this issue. An increase in request for information has been seen by these agencies. The IWF can share appropriate data with them so that they can work to remove the content and investigate distributors. The Metropolitan Police describe the IWF as being ‘a key partner to law enforcement for many years and the newly formed Crypto Unit provides greater opportunities to combat these horrendous crimes, rescue children from sexual abuse and arrest offenders.’

Crypto exchange service, Coinbase, have participated in an IWF exercise into Coinbase user’s misuse of the platform to conduct illegal activity. It identified more than 6,500 users were doing so. This assisted to ‘identify website operators thought to be selling and distributing child sexual abuse material and close merchants who were accepting payments for illegal services.’

The IWF’s development of their Crypto Unit and innovative partnership exercises with Coinbase, are positive steps in understanding and combatting, generally, the selling and distribution of online child sexual abuse imagery but specifically, disabling the use of cryptocurrency to do so.