The depths of human depravity are witnessed daily by a group of specialist officers hunkered down deep within Kent Police headquarters.
Because it is here a dedicated team spend their days trawling through sickening images of child sexual abuse; tracking down the victims, the perpetrators, and those seeking out the material in the darkest recesses of the internet.
It is a heavy price to pay for the vital role they perform, but one they see as a privilege as they bid to crack down on the corruption of innocent children.
Detective Chief Inspector Shaun Creed heads up the Paedophile Online Investigation Team (Polit).
“We never underestimate the impact that seeing these images can have on people,” he says.
“We have really good welfare provision in place and we certainly all look out for each other. But I think what really keeps us motivated is knowing that we're making a difference, that we are actually having an impact protecting children.
“We are identifying children that previously haven't been identified but were offended against in the past, and bringing offenders that would do this to children to justice.”
If you look beyond the disturbing images dotted across the team’s computer screens – and thankfully cleared before I make my way through the office - the nerve centre of Kent Police’s war against child sexual abusers is a relatively cheerful one.
There’s chatter among colleagues and, perhaps to combat the scenes they have to witness as part of their job, there’s a ‘pets corner’ picturing the officers’ furry friends, as well as posters dotted around pointing to support if they need it.
There’s a unity here – everyone looking out for each other, acutely aware of the degeneracy their job entails witnessing.
You cannot help but respect the people here for what they have to put themselves through.
The DCI says his officers have seen a 10-15% year-on-year increase in the hundreds of images they investigate. Cases are referred to the unit frequently by the National Crime Agency, which in turn is fed information from the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The latter is a non-profit organisation established by the US Congress in 1984, conducting preliminary investigations into the content it encounters. By using geolocation tracking, it can then refer the case to the relevant authority worldwide.
Distressingly, there are plenty of cases tracked back to Kent.
Detective Sergeant Jemma Hobden is one of those tasked with investigating the images passed down to the team.
“The majority of my career I've been in child protection or sexual offences, both with children and adults,” she explains.
“Since having my own kids, I wanted to come into this department because I live in Kent, I work in Kent, and for them growing up, I want to make it a better, safer place.
“Since coming here it's the best job by far that I've had in the police. You know you are making a difference; that, little by little, we are making it a safer place. That you’re safeguarding children not just in Kent but all over the world.”
It is easy to assume there has been an increase in child sexual abuse in recent years, such has been the headlines generated by high and low-profile offenders.
But DS Hobden believes that is likely to be perception rather than reality.
“I think there are still the same amount of people who have that interest now as there was 50 or 100 years ago. But nowadays we have the technology and advances to make it so readily available, which fuels the industry,” she explains.
The internet, of course, has changed the parameters when it comes to sharing the harmful content.
The dark web in particular – that not probed by the vast majority of us – has proven fertile territory for those seeking such material.
There are even ticketed live streams of child abuse, with paying viewers able to dictate what happens to the victims.
DCI Creed says it is at the more “extreme end”, but it has happened both in the UK and abroad and is most frequently staged by organised crime gangs – alert to the rewards of such paid-for content. But those financial transactions are also a key tool in law enforcement’s arsenal. Follow the money, as they say.
In fact, DCI Creed describes “the industry” around such abuse as being not dissimilar to another long-running battle with the criminal underworld.
“We recognise the viewing of the images is what feeds the demand for these images to be created,” he says.
It is a bit like drug supply really – it's the users that fuel the industry
“It is a bit like drug supply really – it's the users that fuel the industry.
“The people who view images essentially have a sexual interest in children and therefore are then a risk in the real world to people around them as well. It's often a gateway to further offending.”
Frequently, “like-minded individuals” meeting on the dark web will then use the likes of WhatsApp and other social media platforms to exchange video and images of their depraved desires.
It leaves officers relying on those companies and internet service providers to assist in identifying and reporting them.
The situation has also been exacerbated recently by the advent of AI – artificial intelligence – which can create life-like images and content. They are often at least partially based on real people.
PSE Lisa McIlfatrick is one of two dedicated workers seeking to identify those captured on film or photograph.
“Some of the AI images are very convincing but there are some little clues in there which make us suspect it’s been created,” she says.
“But I think over time they’re going to get better and it will probably be impossible, or at least very difficult, to identify the child behind them.”
PSE McIlfatrick admits looking at such images requires a particular mindset.
“For me, personally, I look at it as that's the world, but not one I’m part of,” she says.
“But it's not nice. Unfortunately, you become a little bit normalised to it because it's a process that you've got to look at it and analyse it.
“But when I leave the office I’m able to block it out. Now and again you’ll think about things. You always will get images that will upset you at certain times.
“It's sad, but it's just the way it is.”
But it’s not just images obtained by direct abuse which flood the more sordid corners of the online world. Sexually explicit images taken by teenagers to share with their boyfriend or girlfriend can quickly be swept up and become part of sharing platforms specialising in the underaged.
The police unit’s work extends far beyond simply trying to identify those people in Kent who have been a victim of – or perpetrated – such abuse. They also have to go out and meet the people involved – and are fully aware of the impact such investigations can have on families.
DS Harriet Slegg explains: “It's not just the images, it's about when we go out to arrest a suspect.
“Quite often they're in a family environment, so that interaction with the family can be quite draining, and to do it repeatedly can take a toll on people; to see other people’s suffering.
“We're dropping this bomb on their house. Some of these people have never been in trouble with the police before and have no idea what we do.
“We're often coming in early, just as their kids are getting ready for school and this is happening. It's a huge impact on their wife – and I say it’s generally men we are arresting – and their kids; the whole family.
“There's a huge stigma attached to it. It's really difficult, and innocent family members can feel very isolated. So we become that point of contact for them. We can signpost people to various agencies that can help. But you know, it takes a heavy toll on them.”
While the officers don’t go into specifics, they also advise that even hiding behind a VPN – the increasingly popular ‘virtual private networks’ which hide your identifying IP address – is not a sufficient barrier for offenders to cower behind.
DCI Creed adds: “Kent Police is heavily invested in tackling this form of criminality and we work tirelessly with our colleague forces around the UK, the National Crime Agency and with agencies across the world that have access to the most up-to-date technology and industry experts.
There is no way that people are safe to do this kind of offending
“In short, there is no way that people are safe to do this kind of offending and we are only increasing our efforts to tackle offending and safeguard children day after day.”
Attached to the Polit is another key department – MOSOVO – the Management of Sexual or Violent Offenders.
Among the roles it fulfils is to monitor those convicted sex offenders to ensure they do not access offensive images online as part of their release – if, for example, they are subject to a sexual harm prevention order.
So just how do police ensure new devices aren’t purchased and hidden?
PC Alan Atherton-Jackman – or AJ as he’s better known – plays a key role.
“Once someone has been convicted and, potentially, served time in prison,” he explains, “they'll be given a sexual risk order or a sexual harm prevention order. This is a civil order put in place by the court which means they must give access to their devices and provide us with usernames and passwords.
“That gives us power to manage them in the community by checking compliance and enforcement of that.
“We have the specialist software and hardware that allows us to perform an initial triage of their devices. They will identify if something is an indecent image very quickly.
“As soon as the software flags it up - or I see it myself when I'm doing a manual review - then I can arrest them and we have that evidence ready for court.”
But what’s to stop the offender buying a hidden device which they conceal?
“We have ways of identifying devices that are inside of a property,” he explains.
“The way devices connect to one another means there are ways we can find them.”
The ‘digital dogs’ can sniff out technology, even sim cards and tiny SD cards
And if that’s not enough, they also have a secret weapon – of the four-legged variety.
Dubbed ‘digital dogs’, these specially trained canines can uncover forbidden tech
PC Atherton-Jackman adds: “They can sniff out technology, even sim cards and tiny SD cards. People will hide data on tiny little USB sticks - but the dogs will find them.
“They are our closest allies - they certainly have a better nose than I have.”
As for the offenders?
“They have offended, but by doing the best I can, by providing the best evidence, by investigating diligently and thoroughly, will mean they will answer for their actions,” adds PC Atherton-Jackman.
“I don't think anyone wants to be interested in children - and lots of offenders don't want to look at it. They will work with us. We can signpost them to people to help them and prevent further offending.
“I've been a policeman for 14 years and met people who have done terrible things - dark, nasty things - but they're still a person and I have to treat them with respect and courtesy no matter what they've done. That's the correct thing to do.”