A two-year international operation led by New Zealand authorities, has identified over 90,000 online accounts possessing or trading child sexual abuse material.
The content has been described as some of the most shocking Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) inspectors have ever been exposed to.
The department said the content and level of sexual violence, assault and degradation towards infants and children could not be overstated.
The operation - spanning 13 countries - investigated 836 cases and was able to safeguard 146 children.
In New Zealand, 71 suspects have been identified, 46 arrested and 12 investigations are still in progress.
Six children in this country were protected as a result, DIA said
DIA launched Operation H in October 2019 following an alert from an electronic service provider, which had found tens of thousands of people using the platform to share what DIA said was some of the most horrific and devastating child sexual abuse material online.
DIA said it had been the largest and most challenging online child exploitation operation led out of New Zealand.
The operation also involved New Zealand Police and Customs.
The operation also brought together law enforcement agencies from around the world, including the FBI, the Australian Federal Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom and Interpol, DIA said.
To date, 125 New Zealand-based accounts have been identified as part of the investigation.
DIA Digital Child Exploitation Team manager and Operation H head Tim Houston said the operation and the prosecutions that followed represented a major success in international efforts to undermine and disestablish the environments and networks that sought to exploit children.
''I commend the ongoing support of our law enforcement partners domestically and across the world for their dedication and hard-work,'' Houston said.
''This operation will have an impact on the global networks that deal in the most horrific and damaging material."
DIA was extraordinarily proud of the effect the operation would have on children's live around the world, he said.
The operation served as a warning to other offenders preying on children online and distributing child exploitation material, which would not be tolerated in New Zealand, the department said.
Timeline for Operation H
- September 2019 - ESP provider reports offenders in either possession of, viewing, and/or sharing child abuse material. Senior Investigator reviews report and identifies approximately 32gb of files per link.
- October 2019 - ESP supplies DIA with account information indicating over 90,000 users internationally.
- October-November 2019 - Investigators disseminate relevant data to domestic and international partners. Over a 24-month period DIA investigators co-ordinated a domestic and international team who identified users previously not known to law enforcement who were viewing and sharing the material.
- February 2020 onward - DIA and Police undertake warrants and prosecutions into New Zealand-based offenders
DIA and Police continue to work to identify individuals behind the many user names and accounts uncovered.
The department said it anticipates inquires will continue for many months to come.
DIA provided two case studies of offenders in New Zealand.
"In October 2021, law enforcement conducted a search warrant in the South Island on a suspect identified as part of the operation. This individual was considered a moderate risk and had no criminal history.
"Once interviewed, the offender disclosed to consuming child exploitation material for over 20 years as well as other forms of harmful material such as bestiality and torture bondage. When the offenders cloud storage was uncovered it was found to contain over 27,000 files depicting child exploitation material.
"During an interview with law enforcement, the offender also revealed that they regularly travelled to Southeast Asia and paid families to sexually abuse their children over camera for financial gain. Although the offender denied engaging in sexual exploitation while abroad, it is likely from the information obtained that they were a sex tourist."
"In June 2021, an offender in the North Island identified as part of the operation was sentenced to four and a half years in prison on multiple charges relating to the possession of child sexual exploitation material.
"There was no evidence the offender's online behaviour escalated to physical offending, however, he worked closely with children as a local sports coach and teacher's aide.
"DIA, New Zealand Police and New Zealand Customs Service worked closely together throughout the investigation which uncovered over 50,000 child sexual abuse material files in his possession."