Thousands of AI-generated images depicting child abuse have been shared on a dark web forum, new research has found.
About 3,000 AI images of child abuse were shared on the site in September, with 564 depicting the most serious kind of imagery including rape, sexual torture and bestiality.
Of the images, 1,372 depicted children aged between seven and 10 years old, according to research by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
The charity said the most convincing images would even be difficult for trained analysts to distinguish from photographs and warned the text-to-image technology will only get better – making it harder for the police and other law enforcement to protect children.
Some images depict real children whose faces and bodies were used to train the AI models, which the charity has decided not to name.
In other cases, the models were used to “nudify” children based on fully clothed images of them uploaded online.
Criminals are also using the technology to create images of celebrities who have been “de-aged” to depict them as children in sexual abuse scenarios.
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Online victims write to tech bosses
‘This threat is here and now’
Ian Critchley, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection in the UK, said the generation of such images online normalises child abuse in the real world.
“It is clear that this is no longer an emerging threat – it is here and now,” he said.
“We are seeing children groomed, we are seeing perpetrators make their own imagery to their own specifications, we are seeing the production of AI imagery for commercial gain – all of which normalises the rape and abuse of real children.”
The UK’s impending Online Safety Bill is designed to hold social media platforms more responsible for the content published on their platforms.
But it does not extend to the AI companies whose models are being altered and used to generate abusive imagery.
The UK government is hosting an AI safety summit next week that aims to address the risks associated with artificial intelligence and consider what action is needed.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said new EU laws on child sexual abuse should cover unknown imagery.
“We are seeing criminals deliberately training their AI on real victims’ images who have already suffered abuse,” she said.
“Children who have been raped in the past are now being incorporated into new scenarios because someone, somewhere, wants to see it.”
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‘We don’t understand how AI works’
Politicians ‘caught asleep at the wheel’
Ellen Judson, head of the digital research hub at Demos, the think tank, said: “Once again, policymakers have been caught asleep at the wheel as generative AI continues to radically transform the nature of online harms.”
She called for the government to “get on the front foot” in their understanding and regulation of AI tools, specifically around how they are designed and developed.
“Waiting for the next crisis to occur before responding is simply not a sustainable approach,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Online child sexual abuse is one of the key challenges of our age, and the rise in AI-generated child sexual abuse material is deeply concerning.
“We are working at pace with partners across the globe to tackle this issue, including the Internet Watch Foundation.
“Last month, the home secretary announced a joint commitment with the US government to work together to innovate and explore development of new solutions to fight the spread of this sickening imagery.”
When Kerry Daynes discovered the words “Jill Dando” scrawled on her fence, shortly after her cat was found dead in her garden with its neck apparently broken, she believed her life was in danger.
The forensic psychologist has come face-to-face with some of the UK’s most notorious criminals, including Moors murderer Ian Brady and violent inmate Charles Bronson, through her work in maximum security prisons.
But it was after her appearances on television that she says made her the target of a stalker.
After taking part in several crime documentaries, Daynes was contacted online by a stranger offering her the chance to buy domains for websites set up in her name.
She declined the offer but he “immediately turned” and responded with “anger and vitriol”, she says.
He “bombarded” her with messages and comments were posted online accusing her of being a liar and remarking on her appearance in different outfits, she says.
“I knew he had my address, he knew what clothes I was wearing, he knew I lived alone,” Daynes tells Sky News.
“It was a really terrifying time.
“I didn’t have any knowledge of him. I didn’t know who he was.
“He could have been any man who walked past my house or who was behind me in a queue in Tesco’s.
“Every time a man looked at me, I thought: ‘Is that him?’
“I was rushing into my house at night, trying to get my key in the door quickly… and then living with the curtains closed.”
‘Fixated, unwanted, persistent’
Daynes, from Greater Manchester, says she would lie awake at night thinking was this “somebody who was likely to kill me”.
“What was disconcerting about it was the level of obsession this man had about me,” she adds.
“I’d never spoken to him. As far as I was aware, I’d never set eyes on him.
“Fixated, unwanted, persistent – he was clearly a stalker.”
Daynes says the man’s behaviour meant she stopped appearing on TV or at public speaking events and stayed off social media.
She finally came face-to-face with him in a civil court case, which resulted in the websites in her name being taken down.
But years later, while out walking her dog, she says a parked car suddenly sped up and nearly hit her.
A week later, she received a letter from the man with a demand for more than £26,000. Shortly after that, her cat was found dead.
“My cat – who had been absolutely fine 10 minutes previously – I found dead, seemingly having had its neck broken, and looking like he’d been thrown over my fence,” Daynes says.
“When I went round to the other side of the fence, somebody had written the words: ‘Jill Dando’.”
Daynes believes the mention of Dando – the TV presenter who was shot dead outside her London home in 1999, in a murder that remains unsolved – was meant as “a death threat”.
“I walked into the police station and said I want to speak to your specialist officer in stalking,” she says.
Daynes says the man later received a harassment warning from police.
The celebrities targeted by stalkers
On Friday, a stalker will be sentenced for targeting the actress Claire Foy, who played Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix series The Crown.
Foy described the actions of Jason Penrose as “deeply frightening” after he sent more than 1,000 emails in just over a month, knocked on the door of her home and contacted her sister.
It follows a string of high-profile victims of stalking in recent months.
David Beckham said he was “frightened” for his family’s safety after Sharon Bell sent him “threatening” letters and turned up at his daughter’s school.
She was charged with stalking and detained under the Mental Health Act in July last year.
And in February 2022, a stalker who trekked 23 miles to the home of tennis star Emma Raducanu and stole her father’s shoe as a souvenir was handed a five-year restraining order.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which supports victims of stalking, says cases involving celebrities are “by no means the majority”.
About 45% of people who contact the charity’s helpline are being stalked by ex-partners, and a further third have had prior contact with their stalker.
Read more: Singer Billie Eilish asks for restraining order Stalker terrorised 121 victims after making ‘rape list’
Official figures show there were more than 718,000 stalking and harassment offences in England and Wales in the year to June 2022 – a 45% rise compared with the year ending March 2020.
However only 5% of stalking cases in England and Wales result in a charge, according to the National Stalking Consortium.
In November, anti-stalking campaigners submitted a super-complaint – which is designed to consider complaints about systemic issues in policing – after arguing that forces are failing to launch effective probes into stalking crimes.
The five ‘types’ of stalker
There are generally five stalker types, according to forensic psychologist Kerry Daynes.
However the behaviour of stalkers is complex and shifts, meaning they won’t necessarily behave within the confines of one “type”, she adds.
1) The rejected stalker – this is the most common and involves someone attempting to reconcile with a former partner or exacting revenge for perceived rejection. Rejected stalkers can become violent when stalking does not produce their desired outcome.
2) The incompetent suitor – this refers to stalkers who target strangers or acquaintances with the aim of sexual encounters. Action Against Stalking says some people think the term “incompetent suitor” minimises criminal behaviour that is often born out of an attitude of entitlement.
3) The erotomanic or intimacy-seeking stalker – this is fuelled by stalkers’ delusional beliefs that they are already in an intense relationship with the victim. It often involves targeting celebrities or public figures.
4) The resentful stalker – this is motivated by anger where the stalker is convinced they have been mistreated or humiliated by someone, even having had little contact with them. The stalking is vindictive and designed to cause distress or damage to the victim’s reputation.
5) The predatory stalker – this is where stalking is part of a violent or sexual offence pattern. It can involve targeting strangers, with stalkers following victims, watching them and collecting information on them.
Why are celebrities targeted?
Daynes says the most common type of stalker is “the rejected stalker” and most people will know those targeting them.
“Stalking is a pretty gendered crime – more often than not, it is men who stalk their female ex-partners, although that’s not to say you don’t have female stalkers,” she says.
“What we find is that those who stalk people in the public eye, they tend to have low-level mental health problems, they tend to be unemployed, or under-employed, and they’re struggling with various difficulties in their lives.
“I think it’s easy for them to become obsessed with someone they don’t know, because they turn to fantasy to deal with that.
“For people who are inclined to fantasise a relationship with somebody they’ve never met, the fact they’re able to view lots of photographs of them on Instagram or they’re able to look into their home on TikTok videos, it all adds to that faux intimacy.”
Ex-newsreader tells of ‘psychological rape’
Former newsreader Alexis Bowater, who was the victim of stalking, described the crime as “psychological rape”.
She was working as a presenter on ITV Westcountry when she was bombarded with emails from stalker Alexander Reeve, who made threats against her and her then-unborn child and falsely claimed a bomb had been placed in the studios.
“It’s barbaric, isn’t it, for a human being to want to torture a pregnant woman,” Bowater tells Sky News.
“I had a Home Office-approved alarm installed in my home and we were linked up to the local police station.
“It was a race against time at that point between them getting him and him getting us.”
Reeves was jailed in 2009 for four years but Bowater, who received an OBE for her work to combat violence against women and girls, believes stalking is still “not taken seriously”.
“The sentences are not long enough and not enough people are prosecuted for it,” she says.
“This is a horrific psychological crime which destroys lives.
“When I first start campaigning 10 years ago, people were still making jokes about stalkers. Thank heavens that’s not happening now.”
The private investigator hunting stalkers
Laura Lyons set up a private investigation agency after she was the victim of stalking herself.
Her company – Are They Safe – helps victims of online stalking identify the perpetrators and receives “at least 30 calls” every week about this form of crime.
“It’s a huge, huge problem,” Ms Lyons tells Sky News.
“The landscape of stalking has changed significantly since online communications.
“A lot of the time, until (the stalker) is outside their house, victims don’t know who the stalker is online.
“Sadly, online provides stalkers with the weaponry to stalk anonymously who they want, when they want.
“We’re seeing now that 99% of stalking cases start online.”
Read more: Stalkers ‘have become increasingly obsessive’ The ‘powerful tool’ to protect stalking victims
Social media makes it ‘easy’ for stalkers to hide
Ms Lyons says she works with “a lot of people in the public eye” who are victims of stalking.
“They have to have active social media,” she adds. “You would be hard-pushed to find a presenter with a closed social profile.”
Ms Lyons says stalkers are using virtual private networks (VPNs) to prevent authorities finding them; sending spyware to victims’ emails; hacking into CCTV cameras and using Apple Air Tags to track victims.
She adds that it is also “easy” for stalkers to set up fake profiles on social media sites and hide their information.
“There are so many tools for stalkers to use,” she says.
“It’s so easy for stalkers to remain anonymous and hidden. It’s very difficult for the police.”