There may be as many as 23,000 people who pose a sexual risk to children living in Northern Ireland the director general of the National Crime Agency (NCA) has said.
Graeme Biggar was briefing the Policing Board on the rise in online crime, and warned that children are now “more at risk in their bedrooms than they are on the streets”.
Mr Biggar told the PSNI’s oversight body that the NCA had carried out statistical analysis on the number of people who pose a risk to children in the UK.
He said: “The assessment we have done, based on statistical analysis drawing on lots of data, is that there are between 550,000 and 850,000 people who pose varying degrees of sexual risk to children in the UK.
“A startlingly high number.
I wouldn't want the public to be scared by this, but they probably do need to be shocked
Graeme Biggar, NCA director general
“We have looked to see if we could come up with a figure for the number based in Northern Ireland.
“We have not seen anything in our analysis which suggests that there would be more or fewer people proportionally in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK.
“That ends up with a realistic possibility there are between 16,000 and 23,000 people who pose varying degrees of sexual risk to children living in Northern Ireland.
“A really stark and enormous figure which should worry us all.”
Mr Biggar told the board that “online has become the new front line for law enforcement”.
The board has heard some very chilling and disturbing statistics in relation to child and sexual abuse
DUP board member Jonathan Buckley
He added: “Child sexual abuse is one part of that picture. It is clearly the most shocking part of it.
“I wouldn’t want the public to be scared by this, but they probably do need to be shocked. They absolutely need to be aware. Parents need to talk to their children about the risk
“The sad reality is that children are now more at risk in their bedrooms than they are on the streets.
“Incidents of child sexual abuse have increased and it has increased because more people are working, living, playing online.
“It allows them to get together into groups where they create an echo chamber and they normalise their thoughts and behaviour.
“I do think the existence of the online world has increased this problem. We also think we are better at understanding a problem that has always been there and society has just not seen.”
Chief Constable Simon Byrne said the PSNI had used 47 child abuse warning notices (Liam McBurney/PA)
Mr Biggar said analysis by the NCA two years ago showed that child sexual abuse images could be accessed through Google with three clicks.
He said: “That is appalling. We have worked with Google and they have worked hard. Our analysis now shows it is four clicks.
“That feels like a small change but it has been an awful lot of work and that will significantly help.”
He said that the NCA worked alongside tech companies to get images removed but also appealed to schools and parents to educate children about keeping safe online.
He said: “Most people who do this online anonymise themselves so we have to go through a process, which we are getting better at, at trying to identify the real-world identities of people who are sharing and posting messages online.
“When we have done that we can then disseminate that information out to local police forces, including the PSNI in Northern Ireland.
“We will take urgent and high-risk cases ourselves and go and arrest individuals.
“It is significant demand on already stretched police forces so there is a prioritisation challenge for them and for us.”
Chief Constable Simon Byrne told the board that the PSNI had used 47 child abuse warning notices against people who they believed were susceptible to grooming or exploitation offences.
DUP board member Jonathan Buckley said: “I think the board has heard some very chilling and disturbing statistics in relation to child and sexual abuse.
“It is certainly something that adequate resource is needed from the PSNI and other agencies to root this evil out of our society.”