Working for a UK based forensic company I do a lot of work with cases involving indecent images of children (known commonly as child porn).  When such pictures or videos are found on a computer they are categorised.  The categorising of these pictures is according to the scale below:

1) Nudity or Erotic Posing of Child(ren)

2) Sexual Activity Between Children or Solo Masturbation

3) Non-Penetrative Sexual Activity Between Adult(s) and Child(ren).

4) Penetration of Child(ren)

5) Sadism/Bestiality Involving Children

Recent legislation also means that the above categories are divided into three subcategories based on the age of the subjects.

In our office we have a man who spends most of his time categorising material according to this scale.  Sentencing is also based on the level of images found on a suspect’s computer, if a suspect has level 5 images they will be given a more substantial sentence than if they possess level 1 images.  This individual has a job that I do not envy but he has been doing this kind of work for decades, and he has some interesting stories – but that’s for another time.

The work that he does helps us considerably.  First, we don’t have to spend hours doing the task ourselves and second, our exposure to this material is reduced.  We import his work into EnCase as bookmarks and perform a normal investigation.

This week this person had annual leave booked.  This meant that the tasks of categorising of images fell back on the investigators.  The last place I worked we did all of our own categorising so I’m familiar with the material and just got on with it.  I’ve worked in this field for three years and, in this time, I’ve seen and categorised several millions of these images.  Am I used to it? Have I become desensitised to this kind of material? Not in the least.

I can honestly say that categorising pictures this week has been horrible.  I am disgusted and appalled by the things I see.  Some people in this field will answer this with “You’re in the wrong business,” or “Don’t worry, you’ll learn to cope with it.”  These kinds of comments are not helpful or even true.

After three years these people suggest that I should have developed some sort of immunity to this material but I don’t agree.  I believe it is my disgust at these images that separates me from those people that view it illegally.  I never want to sit down to do such a case and not feel terrible about doing it.  I’m not saying that I can’t cope with the work, I can handle it just fine, but I never want to get to a point where it doesn’t affect me.  If I ever reach it I will consider leaving the field in order to preserve my own humanity.

This is the main reason that I won’t stop arguing that we, as forensic investigators, should not be debating the difference between a 15 and a 16 year old, we should be left to get on with what we do best.  We are not experts in child development, we are not paediatricians, we are digital forensic experts. I’m going to wave this banner until something changes or I die, whichever comes first.  Sadly, knowing the legal system in the UK I have a feeling I know which one will arrive most quickly.

4 responses to “Desensitisation”

  1. That’s a very good point, well made I think. As a mere student of DF, I can’t claim to have any experience of abuse images, but I ALWAYS want to be appalled by even the idea of the content, never mind actually facing it. It’s a task I’m sure I won’t enjoy, but one I hope I will be satisfied in doing – for the eventual outcome.

    On that last paragraph – combining expertise in DF and child psychology or specific study of crimes against children would be useful in an organisation like CEOP perhaps? And are specialist organisations, combining CEOP’s brief with investigative intentions, feasible?

  2. You have one person does all the categorising?!! What a horrific job! I wouldn’t want to put that kind of a load on one person. I had a horrific job this last week with several thousand level 1-4s but I will get a couple of frauds or a drugs investigation next, thats just the way we spread the jobs. Breaking it up makes it tolerable, if I was dealing with it all the time, it’d unhinge me!

  3. I completely agree with your sentiments. I have heard people say they get desensitized to viewing this type of material but I couldn’t, personally. It is utterly sickening.
    Working mainly for the defense on criminal issues, I’m always careful to ask the acting solicitor whether the client contests that images of X or Y severity exist on the equipment in question or whether the client contests how they got there. Affirmative to the latter means I can avoid viewing most of the stuff, verifying placement on path and file name.
    I’m quite happy to accept the Prosecution’s grading in these circs, thanks.

  4. I agree with the author on conditioning. This particular area is a lot more disturbing/uncomfortable to get used to. No matter how professional you are, it will eventually get to you. I was involved in ethical hacking project for 3 years in 1997 onwards. At that time I frequented the hacking websites which had nothing but doom and gloom type of material. After a week of going to these sites, I told myself that enough is enough. There is some level of bad you can accept, after which I do not think most normal people will have an appetite for it. The material itself will emotionally hijack you.

    Your colleague must be a real professional to be doing this classification for decades. I would like to hear some advice from him on how to get some level of reasonable tolerance and be objective during classification process.

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