The National Crime Agency (NCA) said its six-month operation – which involved 45 police forces – had led to the arrest of those who had access to children through their jobs and had no previous contact with the police. A total of 660 people were arrested, including 13 in Scotland.
Police Scotland released separate figures which showed 339 suspected paedophiles had been arrested through its own operations since April 2013.
The NCA said its operation led to hundreds of children being “safeguarded” and had prompted charges for serious sexual assault.
In total, only 39 registered sex offenders were among those arrested.
The details emerged in the week following the announcement of an inquiry into claims of historical child abuse at Westminster.
However, the NCA stressed that none of those arrested is a serving or former MP or member of the government.
NCA deputy director general Phil Gormley said the crackdown – the biggest operation of its kind – involved alleged paedophiles who used the so-called “dark web”, as well as traditional internet access.
The dark web is internet content that is not listed by normal search engines. Users will often use payment methods such as virtual currencies to help avoid detection.
The 431 children who were safeguarded were in the “care, custody or control” of the suspects, and included 127 who were deemed to be at immediate risk of harm.
Mr Gormley said he was “profoundly disappointed” that so many suspects had been arrested over this type of crime and that a harder look needs to be taken at the high numbers of people accessing child abuse images.
He said: “The alternative is not to look under the stone, and we cannot afford not to look under this stone.”
Police Scotland said a paediatric nurse who had worked with vulnerable children since 1995 until his resignation last year, was among recent arrests.
The man was convicted of possessing and distributing indecent images of children from his home, and will be sentenced later this month.
Detective Superintendent Steven Wilson, of Police Scotland’s Specialist Crime Division cybercrime unit, added: “The internet has created an environment where criminals seek new ways to exploit the most vulnerable.
“Sadly children and young people can be amongst those who become their victims.
“Police Scotland has worked tirelessly to pro-actively utilise all available new technology to combat the threats posed by online offenders, bring them to justice and protect those who are at risk of falling victim to abuse and exploitation.
“Those who believe that the internet offers anonymity to exploit children should understand that there is no hiding place, every contact leaves a trace which we will investigate to bring offenders before the courts.”
Officers from the NCA searched 833 properties across the UK and examined 9,172 computers, phones and hard drives.
The NCA said it built up “intelligence packages” on suspects and sent them to police forces across Britain.
Mary Glasgow, director of external affairs at the Scottish charity Children 1ST, said: “We’re dismayed by the scale of online offending against children that this operation has uncovered, but also heartened by the commitment and co-ordination demonstrated by our police forces in tackling it.
“Viewing child sexual abuse images is not a victimless crime. Every image is evidence of abuse suffered by a real child from which they may never fully recover. Seeking out such images creates demand for more and leads to more children being abused. That so many arrests were of individuals who had previously not come to the attention of law enforcement, some of whom were in positions of trust, will be alarming for many parents. It is important that we reassure parents that, if they have suspicions about someone in their community, that they can act on this.”
However, Martin Hart, national manager of Stop it Now!, a charity project which works to prevent child abuse, said many of those accessing child pornography were not necessarily a danger to children.
He added: “In Scotland this is an issue that is exponentially growing as Police Scotland figures will confirm.
“However, the assumption that many people have is that every one of these offenders represents a direct risk to children.
“Current research and our clinical services don’t necessarily find this to be the case. It is true that a proportion of men arrested are a direct risk to children, especially those targeting and grooming young people online, and they require and deserve the full force of the criminal justice and public protection system to ensure children are properly protected.
“However, online offending behaviour is diverse.”
Analysis: Dark web used as a tool to share paedophile material
THERE was a time when persons seeking indecent pictures of children would make and develop these themselves, or, via a convoluted route, acquire such specialist images through the post.
No longer. Digital technology and the internet are wonderful tools, enabling like-minded persons to communicate. However, these qualities are also used for less constructive activities. The onset of developments such as Web 2.0 (where a computer user generates content which is then shared online) and social networks within the “Dark Web” (the internet of databases unseen by a normal browser unless specifically accessed) have been appropriated by paedophiles to distribute their materials.
The anonymity of persons downloading indecent images is very much a misapprehension, as the recent arrests indicate. Computer security experts monitoring for potential terrorist communications examine much of the traffic across the regular internet and the Dark Web.
One of the biggest studies of persons who download indecent pictures of children in the UK found downloaders split into the apparently normal, the troubled (having emotional problems), and the deviant (who had more general criminal tendencies).
The question remains as to why a person would be interested in child pornography. One possibility is that such persons are mildly compulsive and spend too much time viewing pornography. They become desensitised to what they see, so seek more arousing material.
Most adults separate the attractiveness of children and adults, and the target of their mature sexual desire. It may be that persons with a sexual interest in children have an internal over-ride mechanism that disrupts this separation. What causes this over-ride is the focus of much research.
• Analysis by Dr Vincent Egan; a forensic psychologist at the University of Nottingham