More than 500 children have been identified as potential victims of online sexual abuse during a major police investigation.
As many as 30 million indecent images were recovered during Operation Lattise which has resulted in the arrest and charging of 77 people so far.
Charges included rape, sharing indecent images of children – some as young as three – sexual extortion and grooming. Of the 523 “victims or potential victims”, 122 who engaged on the internet and were in danger have been referred to child protection services.
The operation was carried out between 6 June and 15 July and involved 134 investigations.
More than 390 charges have been brought so far and many of the investigations are ongoing. The homes of 83 suspected perpetrators have been searched and 547 seized devices have been examined. The six-week operation brought together resources from across Police Scotland, including prevention, investigation, local policing and specialist teams.
The investigation saw the recovery of more than 30 million sexual images; the assessment of over 100,000 chat logs; and more than 390 charges levelled, including: rape; sharing indecent images of children; grooming for sexual purposes; sexual extortion; indecent communication with children; possession of a firearm; bestiality; and drugs offences.
Inquiries focused on five key areas of online child sexual abuse. They were distribution, sharing and possession of images depicting child sexual abuse (known as Indecent Images of Children – IIOC); online grooming of children for sexual purposes, including child sexual exploitation; online or webcam sexual extortion of children; live streaming of child sexual abuse and international and specialist investigations.
Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham said: “Online child sexual abuse is a national threat. The reality is it is happening now, not only in Scotland but across the world, to children of all ages, from infants to teenagers.
“Operation Lattise was about shining a light on the scale of this issue, it was focused activity to tackle the many forms of online child sexual abuse by identifying those who pose a risk to children online and, more importantly, identifying victims of online sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as preventing more youngsters becoming victims.
“Let me make it clear: child sexual abuse and exploitation, which can range from sharing images depicting the rape, sexual torture or assault of a child to grooming or sexually extorting a child, takes place solely because of decisions made on the part of the abuser.
“Online child sexual abuse is not a victimless crime: children, from toddlers to teenagers, are being sexually abused and exploited now in Scotland and when an image or video clip is shared or viewed, they are being re-victimised.
“Police Scotland is committed to keeping children safe and the protection of children was absolutely at the heart of Operation Lattise.
“All children have a right to protection against abuse, exploitation, neglect and violence. We will continue to work with our partners to protect and promote the wellbeing of all children.
“Our commitment to tackling this horrific threat will continue.”
Police Scotland said Operation Lattise proved highly complex. For example, the examination of one device resulted in officers assessing the adult suspect had been sexually communicating with in excess of 110 children and young people. In another investigation, the forensic examination of a suspect’s electronic device resulted in the recovery of 10 million child sexual abuse or indecent images of children. It is expected it will require the full time work of four officers for six months to complete image viewing alone.
The Scottish Government’s Early Years minister Mark McDonald said: “Children and young people should be able to enjoy and learn from the internet, but we also want them to stay in control and know what to do and who to go to if they feel at risk.
“Keeping children safe is a priority for both Police Scotland and the Scottish Government, so although there are many positive aspects to the online world I recognise, there are also risks we have to be aware of.
“The outcomes of the operation will help to inform our child protection improvement programme.”