So what do you do at work?
It’s a question we all get asked at one time or another and for most of us it’s a query we have little trouble answering. For Dhyana Flitcroft, though, replies aren’t quite as straightforward. As partnership delivery manager at the National Crime Agency's Child Exploitation and Online Protection (NCA-CEOP) unit, she is often exposed to unimaginable online horrors but she’s not one for flinching – on the contrary.
“I’ve got two nephews and you do get a skewed perspective on the world when you see the horrific things that humans are able to do other humans,” she admits. “But for me it underlines why we have to do everything possible to prevent offenders from exploiting online platforms and preventing children from becoming their victims.”
As public services go, few can be as important and it directly reflects her own searing commitment to serve the public, a cause that has long burned bright and which shows no signs of diminishing. But it wasn’t always that way – initially a career in the private sector seemed to beckon.
An early moment of clarity
Flitcroft grew up in South West England, the daughter of parents who both had their own businesses, and she initially expected to follow in their footsteps. “I wanted to have my own company,” she recalls. “I thought that I might have my own recruitment business as it was really booming in those days.”
Her private sector leanings were, however, set aside during a post-university around the world trip. “During my time away I stayed at a female Buddhist Baharat – since a teenager I’ve had a strong interest in things like yoga and meditation – and it was there that I concluded that I would be better working for the public sector, even though my degree was in business. I just wanted to be more public service oriented.”
Upon returning to the UK, a succession of jobs followed at the NHS, BBC and Transport for London, all of which were in the training and development sector, before she moved to the Home Office where she designed training courses for UK policing. That was about 13 years ago and she has stayed in the law enforcement sector ever since.
Her experiences in training and development have helped shape her approach to her responsibilities at NCA-CEOP, much of which are rooted in building relationships and addressing the fluctuating demands of a range of stakeholders.
“Working in training and development, particularly when it concerns changing national policing, requires a lot of negotiating skills to try and get everyone on the same page,” she points out. “There can be tensions and conflicts when there are lots of different police forces involved. So being able to bring people together and find the middle ground is a skill that I think I have definitely honed during that time. Also, being able to speak to people of all ranks and seniority – getting things commissioned with senior leaders but also speaking to police constables on the ground – has definitely stood me in good stead.”
A new opportunity
Prior to switching to NCA-CEOP, Flitcroft had spent a number of years at the National Cyber Crime Unit but sensed it was time for a change. “I had done as much as I could at my level there and was looking for different opportunities,” she explains.
“Cyber crime is quite often technical and you do have to keep yourself really up to date on all the latest threats, which I was finding quite a drain. So for me it was an obvious transition. When it came to protecting children, the cyber elements I already had experience of, and it just seemed like an obvious leap. And when it came to working in partnerships, I knew some of the partners from working on the cyber side.”
But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a sense of trepidation about what the role might entail, not least as she was well aware that NCA-CEOP is very careful about what it does and doesn’t publicise. Fortunately, she was aware of its commitment to the welfare of its personnel. “NCA as a whole is very much centred on the wellbeing of staff – people are the most important asset of the agency – so I knew that anything that I needed would be made available.”
Flitcroft’s role at NCA-CEOP is all encompassing. That’s because partnerships are woven into the very fabric of the unit – its approach is predicated on its own staff working alongside UK law enforcement, the third sector, and private sector organisations to help safeguard victims and prosecute offenders.
When a crime has been committed, NCA-CEOP teams deploy their specialist skills to identify the person or people responsible, working with regional police forces to bring them into the criminal justice system. They also share their knowledge and insight about how to prevent, identify and report online child sexual abuse, while the unit’s partner organisations – including BAE Systems – help, amongst other things, to provide the latest technologies.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of all involved, there remains much to do. According to the National Crime Agency’s 2018 National Strategic Assessment, there has been a 997 per cent increase in referrals to NCA-CEOP since 2012. And with Ofcom’s 2018 Children and Parents Media Use and Attitudes report finding that 99 per cent of 12-15 year olds go online and spend an average of twenty and a half hours a week on the internet, the risk of exploitation is clear.
This data helps fuel Flitcroft’s unceasing passion to leave no stone unturned but it’s not all about the raw statistics – anything but. “There is definitely that self-inner drive to work with partners and push them as hard as we can,” she says. “But sometimes the child can get lost because you’re often talking about technical things. It all needs to be child centred – these are real people we’re talking about. It’s important to me that we keep the focus in the right place.”
Priming the partners
Industry, third sector organisations and international partners come together under the NCA-CEOP umbrella in pursuit of the common priority of protecting children – but each have their own role to play. “The work with industry is about what messages can we get out to parents, carers, children, teenagers about how to keep themselves safe,” explains Flitcroft, “but also about what information can we give to industry to help them prevent offenders exploiting their platforms in the first place.”
By contrast, the collaboration with third sector partners is more focused around supporting their frontline work and ensuring they have the latest information about the threat. “We have had third sector partners come to us and say they have no idea about the dark web, for example, and they need to know what it means for their conversations with young people,” recalls Flitcroft.
“So we are about giving them enough information so they can upskill their own frontline workers to deliver their services more effectively, but also to get an idea about what they are seeing, so it is very much a mutually beneficial relationship.”
“All our work is strategic, so we don’t get involved in the operational work, but we focus instead on identifying what will have a big impact against the threat” Dhyana Flitcroft, Partnership Delivery Manager at the National Crime Agency's Child Exploitation and Online Protection (NCA-CEOP) unit
International partners, too, have a significant role to play as crimes often take place outside UK borders but can involve British individuals. “Here, we’re trying to increase the capacity and capability of law enforcement overseas so when something happens they are able to respond in an effective way,” she says. “All our work is strategic, so we don’t get involved in the operational work, but we focus instead on identifying what will have a big impact against the threat – new policies, new technology – and we do this on behalf of UK policing.”
Thankfully, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had as big an impact on their work – quite the opposite actually. “I’ve been so surprised that it hasn’t hindered our partnerships,” admits Flitcroft. “The conversations have been more relaxed when you’re talking to someone from their bedroom or kitchen. I certainly feel I have got to know them a lot better and I hope they feel the same way as well. I always felt that you had to be face to face to do partnership work but have found that this is absolutely not true.”
Staying ahead of the technology
Of course, one of the biggest challenges for Flitcroft and her colleagues is the rapid pace of technological development. While this means a greater range of services tailored to the average consumer’s digital needs, it also means a wider window of opportunity for offenders to exploit.
Take online gaming, for example. Here, NCA-CEOP seeks to get into the design process as early as possible so that designers are thinking about safeguarding from the get-go, thereby removing the need to retrofit safety mechanisms after the game has been launched. Flitcroft is at pains to say that her team will always be collaborative and will never seek to name and shame any organisations.
“When we get in touch with them, some app companies think they are about to have a very difficult conversation with us and so pull in their legal counsel,” she says. “But as we get talking they realise we’re not about to announce in the media that their site or app is awful. And then other times we have had companies that have been open books from the start and been crying out for someone to assist them.”
One priority that NCA-CEOP seek from such companies during their conversations is ensuring that they have adequate parental controls in place and which are not turned off by default. Similarly, they want to ensure that app developers and digital platform owners understand who their users are, particularly their age. “We are continually pushing for industry to know who they are providing services to because then they will know what sorts of protections they need to put in place,” says Flitcroft.
“It’s also about trying to ensure that organisations know when offenders from historic cases are on their platforms, the tactics they use and so on. But they also need to be telling us as well – we can give them information but offenders’ tactics change over time so we do need two way sharing to make sure we are keeping ahead of the offenders.”
“In an ideal world, an app or online service should always be thinking whether there is any chance that a child will be using this service, and if they are then they should go down a certain path to make sure that safety is at the forefront of absolutely everything they do” Dhyana Flitcroft, Partnership Delivery Manager at the National Crime Agency's Child Exploitation and Online Protection (NCA-CEOP) unit
A good example of technology not always being helpful is the end to end encryption beloved by various chat services – a “serious concern”, according to Flitcroft. “Obviously we support privacy and security of information but it can’t be at the expense of child safety – the child must come first,” she says.
“In an ideal world, an app or online service should always be thinking whether there is any chance that a child will be using this service, and if they are then they should go down a certain path to make sure that safety is at the forefront of absolutely everything they do – just as they do with cyber security.”
Just a few moments in Flitcroft’s company are enough to serve as a vivid reminder of the scale and depth of her responsibilities – and that’s even without the impact of the pandemic to take into account.
“In the pre-COVID-19 days, if a child had concerns about something they had seen or experienced online, they would have lots of different trusted adults to go to – teachers, doctors, and so on – but in lockdown they didn’t have the same access,” she says. “We already have some indicators that there has been an increase in reporting but we think the growth is going to be more significant than the reporting we have so far.”
But despite these challenges, she remains hopeful that as today’s generation of children become adults, they will increasingly recognise the hidden dangers which pockmark the digital horizon. “As parents they will have more experience of the online world and will be more safety minded as a result,” she predicts.
Whatever happens, she sees herself staying in the public sector – at least for the foreseeable future. “I’m really wedded to the mission about protecting the public; I still feel it very strongly as I always have.”
There’s no doubt about that.
About the author
Tom Whiddett is a Data Analyst and Technical Operations Support, CEOP, at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
Want to learn more about our work with NCA-CEOP? Find out more about how we are helping transform the UK’s response to tackling child sexual abuse in the digital age.
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