JACK WATERFORD. Sherlocks lost the plot on child sex abuse years ago.

Feb 26, 2020

Sundry crime bodies in the home affairs portfolio, operating in the new co-ordinated mode, are proving indefatigable in their search for extra powers to conduct cyber warfare against Australian criminals.Mike Pezzullo, Secretary of Home Affairs, his minister, Peter Dutton, the Australian Federal Police are as ever framing their argument on the basis of an alleged need, currently unsatisfied, to disrupt paedophiles .Watching live sex abuse online suggests that their basic  argument is weak and should be thrown out of court.

For many of us, the idea of any young child, probably from a country such as the Philippines, being sexually abused on demand for the gratification of Australian men is so horrible that one might think that if the new powers prevented only one instance, it would be worthwhile. The horror of paedophilia has that sort of effect on the emotions.

But the realist might doubt that even a single new case, previously unable to be unearthed,  would be discovered because of the new powers. The AFP, and state crime agencies already have considerable capacity to bug, tap, hack, and find information about suspected criminals from third parties, and there is little evidence that their lonely jihad against paedophilia is hampered by a lack of support from the Australian Signals Directorate.

ASD can, and does, gather intelligence on the supply side of the international child-sex exploitation industry, and can, and does, disrupt their activities, including by destroying their websites. It’s all low-level practice for military or economic cyber war, at which ASD has both defensive and offensive capacity.

But ASD is not, other than in exceptional circumstances allowed to spy on Australians in Australia. For that matter, their capacity is supposed to be rather more focused on national security than Australian crime, even if it has a legislative mandate to pass on, and, under instruction disrupt criminal enterprises it discovers in the course of its gathering intelligence to support our soldiers, to monitor regional politics and defend Australia, and its economy, from the threat of cyber-attack.

The idea of ASD having a local role has been an agenda item, particularly for Mike Pezzullo, for several years. His  discussions with the defence department, and then ASD head, Mike Burgess (now the Director General of ASIO) led to a leak to a journalist from News Ltd, still being investigated by the AFP, even if the minister and bureaucrats deny such a project.

But last week, minister Dutton and a pre-prepared team of home affairs and its agencies, were gnawing at the bone again. They were downplaying the breadth of the latest proposal, of which details were thin.  There was no discussion of warrants, or systems of accountability or external scrutiny, or how such powers, if granted, would be used only in combatting serious crime. Experience has shown that other powers, pretended as essential for countering Muslim terrorism, were being used by some agencies to find fine defaulters, including parking offenders, as well as tracking down persons of interest to Centrelink and Border Force.

Peter Dutton said he wanted to be sure that if police could get a warrant from a court to raid a paedophile’s house and search it for child sex material, they could also “have the same power to do that in the on-line life of the paedophile. Nothing more, nothing less”.

He’s working on the assumption that such material is being distributed within Australia, to customers also within Australia.  It almost certainly is, though Australia is less suitable, from an organisational point of view, for relative want of victims compared with a third world, or lawless country. A good many observers say that police already have such powers, if with controls they find inconvenient and cumbersome.

The AFP does not depend only, or mostly, on ASD for its leads to the international trade in child exploitation materials. It has its own trolling, a steady and increasing volume of tips from its new role as the point of liaison with Interpol, and tips from the public and state police agencies. There’s  the work of Austrac in monitoring money transactions to places such as the Philippines or the old Soviet Union, the Crime intelligence commission and the work of state police agencies, and a wide range of intelligence algorithms using machine learning to identify suspects, suspicious transactions, and networks of paedophiles.

A recent research paper by the somewhat neutralised Institute of Criminology profiled about 260 international child sex material consumers identified from Austrac searches. Eight of these bought 55 per cent of the material, and about 65 people bought, between them, about three per cent. Ten per cent – 26 people – had an existing  sexual offence on their record; about 145 had no criminal record at all. The classic offender was a man aged between 50 and 60.

Once, police would be citing their war against illegal drugs, or the war against terrorism, as justification for such powers. We would be told that organised criminals, or terrorists were increasingly wealthy, sophisticated and agile, with their own counter-security, and increasingly making use of the deep net, or encryption, or sophisticated communications technology to defeat the best efforts of law enforcement

One of the advantages of the terrorism justification was its effect of linking crime fighting with urgent national security needs, with the result that pressure for scrutiny, accountability and process could be resisted. But even with some terror threat still apparent, the national security state has been unable to maintain the pitch of imminent threat.  Likewise, the war against drugs has become relatively ho hum, with the public well aware that police activity is having almost no effect on illegal drug supply (or drug prices, or drug profits), and no effect on demand. In short, a lot of police activity – very expensive and dangerous at times – for no real effect on the illegal drug market, or on the incidental crimes (murder, rip-offs, territorial wars etc) that the trade engenders while police focus on the enforcement model.

Child sexual abuse is, of course, a great scourge of society, here and abroad, and the mere fact that police are manipulating the public’s revulsion from it for political ends need not disqualify their case. But it was once the last resort of the “more powers, fewer controls and rules” brigade, and is now the first resort. If it is the best justification, what is the public getting for the considerable cost, and the diminution of public freedoms involved?

I have remarked before that the AFP, and later home affairs and the minister, jumped on child sexual offences as a springboard to new police powers only recently. Two decades ago, the AFP had no real profile on the subject. It had been involved in investigations into child sex abuse abroad, and, more ineffectually and belatedly, into the problem of sex tourism, including child-sex tourism, particularly in nearby tourist destinations. There was some monitoring of on-line pornography, and the commodification of extreme pornography, including of child-sex exploitation, but cases generally were sent to the relevant state jurisdictions, if only for a want of clear Commonwealth jurisdiction. Even after legislation was created, and umpteen police officers (including a seconded Peter Dutton) were cycled through child sexual exploitation squads, there was little in the way of results.

At the intelligence level, it (and reports from more active police and intelligence agencies abroad) was studied as a subset of traditional organised crime activity. As crime in its own right, it was usually handed over to state or territorial agencies. At that stage the AFP was not the post-office for Interpol tip-offs, and these were farmed out by jurisdiction.

State and territorial police activity against child sexual abuse was a disgrace, as became quite evident during the royal commission into the sexual abuse of children in institutions. In many cases the police were simply not interested, or did not believe the victims, especially if the alleged perpetrator, or the institution from which he came, was regarded with any awe by police. In many cases, such as with religious ministers, police were actively helping cover up the problem. As with other very prevalent social problems, such as rape and sexual assaults on women and domestic violence, the problem was ill-understood by most police, as were patterns of victimhood, including, often, the fact that complaints were often not made for many years

Tomorrow Jack Waterford discusses the real problem that most sex abuse occurs in the home.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of the Canberra Times.

Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!