The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have arrested 19 Australian men, the majority of which worked as full-time ICT professionals, after unwinding “technologically sophisticated” obfuscations – including an encrypted dark web peer-to-peer network – in a major operation stemming from the murder of two FBI agents.

Thirteen children were removed from harm in Australia during the culmination of Operation Bakis, an AFP investigation that began in 2022 after two FBI agents were fatally shot by a Florida computer programmer as they were serving him with a search warrant related to an ongoing investigation in that country.

Revelations that the programmer was involved in a global peer-to-peer child abuse network, which also included Australian members, led the AFP to commence the operation – which partnered the AFP with state police in Queensland, NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia in what AFP Commander Helen Schneider called a demonstration of the “unique ability of the AFP to connect with its partners in law enforcement on a national level” as well as engaging with international partners like the FBI.

The FBI – which arrested 79 individuals in the US as part of its own investigations – supplied a package of 211 international leads, which helped the AFP and specialists at its Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) track down and rescue the 13 Australian children.

The investigation also led to the discovery of many terabytes of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), which has seen the 19 Australian men charged with 138 offences, with two already sentenced to jail – including an ACT public servant sentenced to 14-and-a-half years, and a NSW Central Coast man who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to possessing around five terabytes of child abuse material.

Undertaking the “complex” investigation was made harder because the men, most of whom work as ICT specialists, “were using encryption and other methods to avoid law enforcement detection whilst they were sharing videos and files of child abuse material,” Schneider said during a press conference announcing the operation.

Members of the child-abuse ring – who were aged between 32 and 81 years old – used anonymous file sharing, message chat and website tools that also allowed them search for and distribute images and videos.

Some of the offenders – the majority of whom Schneider said “were experienced in ICT or… working full-time in current ICT roles” – were judged to have been committing offences for more than ten years, using the secure peer-to-peer network to avoid detection by authorities.

“They had a higher level of technical competency,” she said. “Viewing, distributing and producing child abuse material is an horrific crime, and the lengths that this network went to to avoid detection is an indication of just how dangerous they were.”

A call for global action

The arrests come just weeks after a United Nations call to action, backed by 74 countries, called for “urgent efforts to proactively remove and combat child sexual exploitation and abuse material online.”

That statement called for governments, internet service providers, and other actors to work together to facilitate an “effective response” to the problem, as well as calls for stronger public awareness campaigns about the scourge of child abuse materials.

Authorities received more than 21 million reports of CSAM in 2020, including more than 65 million images, videos, and other files, according to the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children.

And while a recent Australian Institute of Criminology review found that conventional and social-media anti-CSAM campaigns “have successfully reached large numbers of offenders, both detected and undetected,” program outcomes were “mixed”, with initiatives aimed at child sexual abuse offenders “not necessarily effective in reducing CSAM offending.”

Improving the effectiveness of public education and law-enforcement campaigns will be assisted by the use of common data-driven systems, the UN said, advising authorities to work together to build “common data sets, for or among competent authorities, of known child sexual abuse materials” to assist in the detection, reporting and removal of CSAM.

The AFP, FBI and their international partners will continue to “work tirelessly and relentlessly in this crime type,” Schneider said, calling the culmination of the investigation “a very significant outcome”.

“Our investigators are extremely passionate about this, and I have every confidence that with our partners, we are tackling this type of crime effectively.”