Photos of Scottish children are being harvested from school social media accounts and posted on a website described as a global “meeting place for paedophiles”.
An STV News investigation found images of pupils from eight primary and secondary schools across the country – although it is suspected that many more have been targeted.
The photos are innocent – showing academic and sporting achievements – but are placed alongside extreme images of babies, children and teenagers from around the world.
Anonymous users post disturbing and explicit sexual comments and offer to privately share material with others.
Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, reacted with “horror” to our findings.
She said: “It makes you feel sick to your stomach that somebody is looking at your children’s photos, for example of them winning a prize at school.
“We need to all be much more mindful about what we’re doing, what we’re sharing and how we’re sharing it.
“It’s not the fault of local authorities or schools or young people but we need to make sure it’s not happening as widely. I think there is a part to play for government to look into this.”
According to US law enforcement, the Russian website “is popular for trading child pornography”.
One user has posted almost 6000 photos and states being sexually attracted to children as young as nine.
His picture albums feature pupils from Glasgow Gaelic School, the city’s St Mungo’s Academy, Our Lady’s RC Primary in Perth, Stirling High School and nearby primaries St Ninian’s and Gargunnock.
A St Mungo’s pupil, who has since left school, was traced as she held a certificate with her name on it. She was shocked by our revelations and said she planned to contact police.
Another school targeted was Dallas Primary in Forres, Moray. Photos from the school’s public Twitter feed were harvested by a user who claims to “love girls under 13”, calling them “beautiful creatures”.
It took STV News less than five minutes to identify and find the family of a pupil using only her first name which featured in a tweeted picture.
The relative said: “This is disturbing. I’m going to speak to the school.”
Images from private Wellington School in Ayr are also on the site – posted by a user who appears to be Scottish and with a collection of more than 1100 photos.
We are not identifying the children or naming the site, which is run from the city of St Petersburg.
Digital forensic consultant Vassilis Manoussos, manager of Napier University’s cyber academy, said: “A lot of these comments are vile and inappropriate and unfortunately there’s a lot of people like that out there.
“It is disturbing that there is one place where so many pictures of children are collected and people are actually urging other users to add to this collection.”
In response to the STV News findings, the Scottish Government said there was “a range of guidance” but no nationwide rules around schools’ use of social media.
A spokesman said that each that councils should “fully exercise responsibility for the care, safety and welfare of all pupils in school”.
They added: “Internet services and their regulation is a reserved matter and the Scottish Government is fully engaged in the UK Government’s current consultation on proposals to establish in law, a duty of care for service providers to their users as well as creating an independent regulator that will hold tech companies and providers of online services to account for tackling online harms.”
‘Child porn hiding in plain sight’
The site gets more than 20 million monthly visits and was last year debated by Dutch politicians after ethical hacker Sijmen Ruwhof identified those allegedly behind it as “they made some mistakes, they left some fingerprints”.
He was shocked by the millions of images on the site, which he calls a “meeting place for paedophiles”.
“It’s kind of an underground website and it’s out in the open, and that’s the curious thing about this website,” he said.
“You don’t need to go on the dark web. You don’t need special software. It’s a child porn website hiding in plain sight.”
STV News emailed questions to the website, including who its owners are, but they declined to answer.
However, in a statement, they said: “The site policy forbids child pornography being posted and as a result there is none of that on site unless something is uploaded between moderation sessions.
“As there is no child porn on site, the site itself can’t be a trading forum nor a paedophiles’ meeting place.”
Chief Superintendent John McKenzie, of Police Scotland, said that children should be able to use social media “without fearing those pictures will be accessed and used for potentially criminal purposes”.
He added: “Whenever we receive information to suggest that a child or young person is at risk of abuse we will pursue and target those individuals involved, collaborating with a range of partners across the UK and around the world to bring these criminals to justice.
“The internet is no hiding place for abusers.”
What did the schools say?
A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman described our revelations as “sad and shocking” and said they have strict rules about online safety.
She added: “Unfortunately there’s nothing that we can do to completely eradicate this risk – but schools can help by pixilating names on certificates that could lead to identification and parents have a role to play to make sure their children are following internet safety guidelines.”
Moray Council’s acting education and social care director Graham Jarvis said that parental consent for publicity is sought each year.
“It’s common practice for schools and parents to share pictures of their children to celebrate successes and activities, and it would be a great shame if the actions of a few depraved individuals prevented this.”
A Perth & Kinross Council spokeswoman said it appeared that its guidance about the use of pupils’ images had not been broken.
“Unfortunately, as this situation exemplifies, there may always be individuals who wish to make entirely inappropriate use of images of children and young people.”
Wellington headmaster Simon Johnson: “Like all independent schools, we have policies in place regarding the use of images and these are reviewed regularly.
“Indeed, the recent introduction of GDPR legislation prompted significant changes in exactly this area. The story that you are telling, of course, will help us to refine our thinking in the future.”
Stirling Council said it had extensive precautions in order to protect children.
“A working group has been undertaking a review of these protocols to ensure the highest standards are maintained, and updated guidance relating to social media is due to be issued for the start of the next school year.”
Keeping children safe online
Parents are urged to speak to their children about what they are doing online.
The charity NSPCC says this is the best way to maximise children’s online safety.
Their advice includes exploring sites and apps together and asking children if they know how to stay safe online.
It is also useful to discuss what information is personal and what should be shared.
The charity offers a template ‘family agreement’ which can set out clear rules.
The agreement can include asking a child’s permission before posting photos of them on social media.
Advice on setting up parental controls to block upsetting and harmful content can also be found.
A guide to the potential dangers of some of the most popular apps and games can be found here.