Wickr, Amazon’s encrypted chat app has a child sex abuse problem
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Wickr Me, an encrypted message app by AmazonWeb Services has been a popular destination to share images of child sexual abuse according to online communities and court documents.
It’s not the only tech platform that needs to crack down on such illegal content, according to data gathered by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, or NCMEC. However, Amazon does not do enough to address the issue, according to experts and law enforcement officials. It attracts traders who are looking to make money from such materials, because they have less danger of being discovered than those in brighter areas of the internet.
NBC News examined court records from 72 child pornography or state child sexual abuse prosecutions. The defendant allegedly used Wickr, as it is commonly called, from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. This was using a mixture of news and legal databases. Apart from the ones still being investigated, almost every prosecution has led to conviction. A majority of criminal complaints were not reviewed and did not include Wickr cooperating at the time it was filed. There are a handful of cases in which Wickr was legally required to disclose information through a warrant. Wickr, and other technology platforms were the source of over 25% of all prosecutions.
According to the two children exploitation specialists, who were involved in the investigation of child exploitation cases and the two police officers, Wickr is used by many criminals on the dark net. Direct knowledge from child exploitation investigations, sting operations and interviews of victims and perpetrators as well interactions with those soliciting child abuse material are all evidence Wickr is being used to exploit children.
You will also find posts that link Wickr with child sexual abuse material all over the Internet. NBC News discovered dozens of accounts, blogs, and forums on social media sites like Reddit and Twitter that had hundreds of posts soliciting minors. This article did not contain any child sexual abuse imagery.
John Shehan, Vice President of NCMEC stated that Wickr should do more to stop child sexual abuse material being sold on their platform.
Other apps including Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram — all owned by Meta — use algorithmic detection methods to constantly scan unencrypted text and media uploaded to their platforms, such as content on a user’s profile, to find signs of child sexual abuse imagery. U.S. law mandates that electronic communication service providers report known or discovered child sexual abuse material to NCMEC.
In 2021, Meta reported to the center in excess of a million: Instagram had 3,393,654 reports and Facebook had 22,118,952 while Instagram received 3,393,654 reports. WhatsApp sent out 1,372,696 reports. Experts believe that high reporting is a sign of proactive work to identify child exploitation materials on a company’s platform.
Wickr is far less popular than these apps, but Wickr self-reported 15 cases of child sexual abuse imagery. Experts and law enforcement have stated that Wickr’s app has been used by individuals to trade such images online. Shehan said that there were around 3,500 reports about child sexual abuse material on Wickr that came from third parties not associated with Wickr — suggesting that the company itself isn’t doing the work to actively detect child pornography, but rather letting it exist on the platforms for users to discover and report themselves.
He said that it was clear that no proactive effort is being made by them to detect this kind of activity.
According to the spokesperson, “Wickr is absolutely responsive and cooperative with law enforcement in these important matters.”
Reddit, Twitter and Wickr.
The internet is full of images that depict child sexual abuse. This problem has existed since the inception of the web. ballooned in recent years as content creation and sharing have become easier than ever.
However, law enforcement officers have expressed dissatisfaction with some apps offering the same level of encryption Wickr does. This is especially true if they aren’t actively working to fight criminal activity.
Wickr, a pioneer in end-to-end encrypted messages, functions like many privacy-focused messaging apps. Individuals and groups can communicate in encrypted form with one another. This removes any identifiable information. It ensures only the receiver and sender can view their messages, but leaves little trace that could be used to identify the conversations by Amazon or law enforcement. Wickr is a popular tool that allows users to delete their messages themselves.
Wickr doesn’t require any personal information. This is in contrast to Signal which asks for username and password. The app allows users to connect instantly with each other via either search or invitation.
Because it is a closed system, people often use other internet parts to get connected before they move to Wickr. This funnel between public and private space is common in child abuse, says Victoria Baines. Victoria Baines is an expert on child exploitation who worked at the U.K. National Crime Agency, Europol, and the European Cybercrime Centre.
“Social media or more open spaces, or online gaming environments, will be used by adults to recruit — to approach — children to have more private contact in more private spaces,” she said.
Nearly a dozen Reddit subreddits with over 50,000 members serve as hubs to exchange Wickr handles. Posts often make light of child sexual abuse. On a nearly daily basis, Wickr’s most prominent subreddit hosts posts on teens and children. Many of the posts are about incest or seeking “bad”, “prvy” parent. A Wickr username is often used to accompany a post that reads “I love homemade video clips, especially with the whole family,”
Others subreddits request teenagers to connect with them through Wickr, and ask for homemade incest videos and images. A post said that “I have just gotten my 12 year-old cousin (f) onto Wickr, and she would like some new people to send her messages, preferably girls.” Some photos are not explicit and show people under 18 years old.
Reddit users have become very aware of this issue and many subreddits have removed Wickr handles from their sites due to the association with child abuse material. One subreddit devoted to meth use pinned a post to the top of the discussion forum saying: “It’s been brought to my attention that people are making posts about ‘taboo’ and ‘perv’ chats posting there Wickr handles are really people looking to trade child porn and discuss pedophilia.”
Online, “perv” and “taboo” are often used to code for child sexual abuse content.
There are many posts, so other subreddits started to pay attention. One activist subreddit dedicated calling out “degenerate communities” has a January post that reads: “The wickr Pages on Reddit are just filled with pervs sending each other cp.” This is how we can get it banned.
These are the content rules Reddit saysIt is important to “avoid posting illegal material or soliciting for or facilitating illegal transactions.” While Wickr-related communities still exist, NBC News found seven subreddits that were banned from the site that contained “Wickr”. Reddit banned five subreddits that were specifically for content which violated its rules regarding sexually suggestive content. Reddit pointed out rules that govern unmoderated communities as well as communities which were forced to ignore community guidelines when they banned “wickr__nsfw”, and “taboowickr”. Reddit didn’t respond to queries about the ban of Wickr subreddits.
Reddit spokeswoman said in a statement that: “Our sitewide policies explicitly ban any sexual or suggestive material involving minors, or anyone who appears to be minor.” It includes images of child sexual abuse and other material that sexualize minors. These content are detected and taken action by our dedicated Safety teams using a mix of human and automated review. Regularly, we ban groups for participating in this behavior. We will continue reviewing and taking action against subreddits and users who violate the platform’s content.
Reddit isn’t the only site where Wickr users attempt to meet one another.
Tumblr searched for the keyword “Wickr”, and found blogs that advertised Wickr accounts. These sites also featured explicit images of teens, non-explicit images showing teenagers, and drugs for sale. Tumblr has deleted many blogs which were reported to it by NBC News. Tumblr representatives stated that child sexual abuse and exploitation (including sexually suggestive content) is prohibited on the site. We ask anyone coming across such content to please report it to us so that our Trust & Safety team can review it and take action in accordance with our Community Guidelines. We also report any suspected child abuse materials to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Tumblr representatives stated that the company used PhotoDNA software from Microsoft, which is licensed for platforms solely to combat child abuse.
Twitter search “Wickr” returned results with Wickr usernames along with the hashtags “teen,” perv”, and “nolimits”. One user appeared to be selling child sexual abuse material, writing “Sixteen is a cool number” and “Sells to anyone” alongside a Wickr handle and the acronyms “map” and “aam,” which stand for minor-attracted-person and adult-attracted-minor respectively. Some posts also advertise drugs available for purchase.
Twitter has said it had suspended multiple accounts reported to them by this article. Trenton Kennedy, Twitter’s spokesperson stated, “Twitter has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse content. Online child sexual abuse is being tackled aggressively by us. We have invested heavily in technology and tools that will enforce this policy. “We have strong enforcement actions against these content and enforce our rules against any non-consensual nudity.”
According to court documents, Wickr users openly traded child abuse material after being connected to groups and other people via the app. According to Wickr’s response to court filings, even though law enforcement has collected a lot of evidence, Wickr appears to have been reluctant to cooperate. its own web page that contains information about how it responds to legal requests.
One national law enforcement officer, who works regularly on child abuse investigations, spoke anonymously to preserve his safety.
He said, “It is not worth the effort to go through the process.” “It’s end-to-end encrypted. So you get no content.”
Wickr must be granted a search warrant, subpoena and court order in order to request any information. Wickr states that once a request has been submitted, Wickr will notify the user. On its website, Wickr warns that encrypted chat information is not available to it. It only has access data like the account’s date, type, date, last used date, total messages sent, received, avatar images, and the Wickr version numbers.
The officer stated that Wickr does not provide any substantial information and they are “convinced” they can make more for the end user.
One of the few cases in which Wickr is believed to have answered a search order was 2021 when an FBI agent stated that Australian officials observed Michael Glenn Whitmore from Anchorage in Wickr user groups, trading and disseminating child abuse material.
One group had users comment on photos of a 12-year old, as well as detailed descriptions about how they would abuse that child. Whitmore also uploaded a clip of a child being sexually abused in another group. According to the complaint, he had been part of five Wickr groups that were believed to be dedicated to child exploitation. He admitted that he had shared child sexual abuse material among Wickr users with “a bit less than 100” people, according to the complaint.
Whitmore Pleading not guilty And is currently being tried. His representative did not respond when he was asked.
Wickr received a search warrant to investigate the complaint. Wickr had information such as the date it was created, what device was used, how many messages were sent, received and even the profile image. Wickr’s description of the profile picture was “an anime of three diaper-wearing children.”
Its “Legal Process GuidelinesWickr makes it clear about how much information it is willing to give law enforcement. The page states that Wickr will not release non-public information regarding users’ accounts to law enforcement unless it is required to do so by appropriate legal processes such as court orders, subpoenas, and other legal processes. A valid search warrant issued by an agency having jurisdiction over Wickr is required to request the content of communications. Our response will indicate that we do not store the contents on servers and that in rare cases where the message is still not retrieved, encrypted data is used.
Wickr claims it bans all illegal activity in its territory terms of service but has in the past been staunchly against law enforcement intervention on tech platforms at large. The Wickr Foundation was the nonprofit arm of Apple that began in 2015. In 2016 they filed a friend-of-the court brief supporting Apple. They argued against the provision of law enforcement tools to allow access to encrypted content.
The brief states that “Deliberately compromised Digital Security would undermine Human Rights around the Globe.” The case is: Apple was ordered to assist law enforcement to unlock an iPhone that belonged to a mass shooter in San Bernardino, California. The order was finally canceled.
It was a heated debate between tech companies as well as law enforcement about encryption. Wickr’s original position was common and representative of the many companies that seek to secure encrypted environments. Wickr’s inaction in finding alternative methods for preventing crime on itsplatform instead of using encryption “backdoors” is a significant departure from the actions taken by other tech companies, such as Meta or Microsoft., This developed the PhotoDNA technology that has been pivotal in identifying and fighting the spread of child sexual abuse material across the internet and is used to scan files in Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud.
Wickr was founded in 2012 by a security-minded group of entrepreneurs including Nico Sell, an organizer of the hacker convention Defcon. This app used encryption that is typically used by military officials for personal messaging. It stripped messages of identifiable metadata and gave users the opportunity to sign up anonymously to have their messages deleted automatically.
The company raised over $1.5 million by 2015. $39 million in fundingThis was done to capitalize on an interest just beginning in data privacy. Sell (who did not reply to a request of comment) sold the company as being staunchly pro privacy, asserting that he had done so early. she had refused to give the FBI a backdoor into the platform. In the same year news began to leak about crimes committed by the app.
Herald Sun reported that Craiglist drug sellers were telling interested parties to get in touch with them via Wickr. Numerous outlets also reported in 2015 that the Islamic State terrorist group was using Wickr to recruit fighters. According to The, Elijah William Roberts was sentenced to 60 month imprisonment for possessing child sexual abuse material. This is the first child pornography case involving Wickr. Deseret Morning News. Roberts was placed on probation and then rearrested on 2021. A U.S. probation officer discovered that Roberts had an unauthorized flip phone with child abuse material, court records show. Roberts remains in detention and is awaiting trial. His representative has not responded to requests for comment.
Court records show that at least three of the people who were charged with child exploitation and Wickr abuse in 2017 were successful prosecuted. In one case, according to court records, Garret Vensland responded to a Craigslist ad from an undercover FBI agent seeking “taboo chat” — a phrase frequently used online to denote a sexual interest in children. Vensland claimed that Vensland had sexually abused 13-year-old boy who was his supervisor in a youth center. Vensland was convinced that he would be able sexually assault a 9 year-old boy on a cross-country journey over Wickr with the help of an undercover agent. The airport was where he was detained. In 2020, he was arrested at the airport. Vensland representatives did not reply to multiple inquiries for comment.
The number of court cases stemming form Wickr child exploitation appears to have increased every year, according to the cases examined.
I think they will realize there is a platform that doesn’t take any steps to detect any child abuse-related illegal activity on the platform. Shehan of NCMEC stated that it becomes the preferred platform and people connect.
Globally, 21 cases of Wickr-related child sexual abuse and exploitation were brought to justice in 2020.
Wickr was purchased by Amazon Web Services in June 2021. Wickr made millions through government contracts, such as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defense, which use enterprise versions of Wickr, as opposed to Wickr’s free app, Wickr Me, which is used by everyday smartphone users. CBPand Defense Department declined to reveal how Wickr products are used after the fact. a previous NBC News investigation.
Wickr Me is Wickr’s consumer product. Wickr Me has experienced steady growth in user numbers since 2018, with 11.6million users according to Sensor Tower. But that is nothing compared to Signal which, in the eyes of the analytics company Sensor Tower has become a major secure messaging platform. It saw 26 times more downloads than Wickr in 2021.
An approach that is hands off
Wickr’s failure to act puts it in direct contradiction of other companies who have addressed the child sexual abuse problem.
Baines observed that WhatsApp had dramatically increased the reporting of child sexual abuse materials by being end-to–end encrypted. analyzing aspects of user profiles outside of encrypted chatsThese include profile photos, usernames, and metadata.
Meta spokesperson said WhatsApp uses a variety of features to detect and stop child exploitation. This includes limiting who can be included in a viral picture, photo matching technology for rules-violation reports that users submit to the company, and photos not encrypted found in group avatars and profile pictures. Meta claims it uses machine learning for scanning usernames and group description to identify child exploitation materials.
Baines stated that, aside from reporting such content’s legal obligations, it was morally right to search for them.
Shehan pointed out a Wickr user’s report to NCMEC about a tip line. He said that a Wickr account was called “BabyAbuse” and used a profile picture of an infant sexually assaulted.
His response was that he would expect Wickr to take the proper measures to track down this activity.
Some human rights activists warned against using Wickr’s problems with child abuse imagery to blame end-to–end encryption.
Anjana Rajan is chief technology officer at Polaris. This organization runs the National Human Trafficking HotlineWickr, according to a statement by, does not need to disclose personal information to stop child trafficking. Instead, Wickr and the other platforms should be able to do so in a secure manner.
The debate about encryption isn’t whether it is beneficial or harmful. She said that the debate is not about whether encryption is good or bad.
She stated that emerging technology is sometimes dominated by a certain type of “boogeyman”. Technology is a tool. [crime]It happens. But the fundamental mechanisms behind it all must be fully understood.
Rajan stated that encryption was part of the “human rights toolskit” which can empower and protect victims. Rajan asked the following question: “How can we stop abuse of these technology rather than passing broad and sweeping criticism of it?”
Shehan stated that Wickr can do more with less encryption than it does now: “We feel that even in encrypted environments, there are still methods that these activities can be identified.” Wickr and other companies should explore how they can make this happen on their platforms while preserving security.
He said that if necessary, children will be given priority when discussing tech and child sexual assault material. We are certainly big supporters and advocates of privacy. But, at the end, it should not be at the expense of children.