National Crime Agency plans digital ‘front door’ for tech firms to report child abuse

New system will enable agency and online platforms to fulfil respective obligations outlined in Online Safety Bill

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

The National Crime Agency is planning to put in place a digital “front door” to enable online platforms to report material displaying or linked to child sexual abuse.

The system – which is slated to be fully operational by the end of 2023 – is set to comprise an application that can be accessed via a standard web browser, and APIs connecting this to the agency’s internal systems. The tool is being constructed in order that the NCA can fulfil duties conferred upon it by the Online Safety Bill.

If and when it becomes law, the bill will introduce a legal requirement for social networks and other websites to report child abuse material to the National Crime Agency – which is enshrined in the legislation as the designated reporting body. This obligation will replace an existing regime in which such reporting is voluntary.

To support the new mandatory regime, the NCA and Ofcom are working to develop and implement a platform that will provide a publicly accessible application through which “a large body of specific and preapproved” users can report child sexual abuse (CSA). The system should also “allow secure upload and ingestion of CSA material” into the law-enforcement body’s systems.

“Current systems for the ingestion and handling of CSA material are well established but will not be suitable once the changes in legislation are implemented,” according to a newly published commercial notice from the NCA.

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The agency is seeking to appoint a supplier to support the delivery of a discovery phase to help inform the development of the digital system. Over the course of a potential year-long contract worth around £1.2m, the chosen firm will assist with a series of discovery exercises, each of which will last about eight weeks and will include research focused on various areas related to user needs and planned features of the platform.

“The discovery teams will work with the product owner and members of a core team to build on high-level work already completed by the NCA, and each phase will result in the generation of a detailed product backlog,” the contract notice said. 

Once the reporting system is up and running, “electronic service providers will be the primary users… [and] will upload data for analysis by NCA staff using existing back-end systems”, the NCA added.

There will be “a large but unknown number” of such users, all of whom will be “invited and pre-approved external members of the community”.

Bids for the contract are open until midnight on 2 December, with work scheduled to start by early February.

The Online Safety Bill is currently awaiting the completion of its final two phases of scrutiny by the House of Commons. This has now been subject to two delays, related to the potential changes which would remove requirements for online companies to report and remove not just illegal content, but “legal, but harmful” material. This includes posts promoting self-harm or suicide.

Sam Trendall

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