Wickr Me, an encrypted messaging app owned by Amazon Web Services, has become a go-to destination for people to exchange images of child sexual abuse, according to court documents, online communities, law enforcement and anti-exploitation activists.
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. But Amazon is doing comparatively little to proactively address the problem, experts and law enforcement officials say, attracting people who want to trade such material because there is less risk of detection than in the brighter corners of the internet.
NBC News reviewed court documents from 72 state and federal child sexual abuse or child pornography prosecutions where the defendant allegedly used Wickr (as it’s commonly known) from the last five years in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, using a combination of private and public legal and news databases and search engines. Nearly every prosecution reviewed has resulted in a conviction aside from those still being adjudicated. Almost none of the criminal complaints reviewed note cooperation from Wickr itself at the time of filing, aside from limited instances where Wickr was legally compelled to provide information via a search warrant. Over 25 percent of the prosecutions stemmed from undercover operations conducted by law enforcement on Wickr and other tech platforms.
These court cases only represent a small fraction of the problem, according to two law enforcement officers involved in investigating child exploitation cases, two experts studying child exploitation and two people who have seen firsthand how individuals frequently use Wickr and other platforms for criminal transactions on the dark web. They point to direct knowledge of child exploitation investigations and sting operations, interviews with victims and perpetrators of abuse, and interactions with individuals soliciting child sexual abuse material as evidence that Wickr is being used by many people who exploit children.
Posts linking Wickr and child sexual abuse material are also littered across the internet. On social media platforms such as Reddit, Tumblr and Twitter, NBC News found dozens of forums, accounts and blogs where hundreds of posts have been made soliciting minors, those who have access to them, or those interested in trading child sexual abuse material alongside Wickr screen names. No child sexual abuse imagery was viewed in the course of reporting this article.