Former NT executive caught in international child abuse material ring

Warning: this story contains details that may distress some readers

Key points:

  • Mark Friend was sentenced to seven years in prison on five charges relating to child abuse material
  • He was caught after extensive investigations in the United States into international child abuse rings
  • In 2020, the Australian Federal Police received 21,000 reports of child sexual exploitation, up from 14,000 last year

 On an August morning last year just before 7:00am, detectives from the Australian Federal Police and Northern Territory Police knocked on the door of a unit in an up-market Darwin suburb.

According to court documents, five days earlier US investigators had tipped off senior Australian police officials that the middle-aged man living in that unit could be accessing and sharing child sexual abuse material.

Police seized hard drives on which were a cache of more than 4,000 items of child abuse material, including videos and images of children, some as young as toddlers, being abused.

This month, Mark Friend was sentenced in the Northern Territory Supreme Court to seven years in prison.

During the case, the court heard he had accessed and shared the material with others through online forums including Telegram, Skype, Zoom, Peer-to-Peer and Mega, while sometimes high on methamphetamine.

A man smiles at the camera wearing a suit.
Mark George Friend was a successful bureaucrat who went on a 'downward spiral' over the last six years.(LinkedIn)

The court was told that outwardly, Friend had a successful career, having worked in the NT public service and the not-for-profit sector, including as a coordinator for youth and family services in the Department of Health and an executive at Anglicare NT.

Before that, he held senior positions in the Northern Territory civil service including at the Central Australian Health Service, as well as a role at the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre.

But inwardly he was "spiralling" from 2013, or "a man living two lives" as described by his defence lawyer, as he grappled with the trauma of childhood abuse and the break-up of a relationship in 2015 as well as drug use.

Lawyer for the Commonwealth Krista Breckweg said in court that hundreds of individual children were the subject of the cache of child abuse videos and photos.

A police building exterior with a US flag flying above a concrete building with tress in the foreground.
Detectives from the Tempe Police Department were involved in an investigation breaking up a large child abuse material ring.(Supplied: Tempe Police Department)

International child abuse rings targeted

The case was the culmination of a multinational effort to break up an international child abuse ring.

Investigators from the US Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program (ICAC), a national network of 61 coordinated task forces with 4,500 federal, state and local law officers, had been homing in on one particular international child abuse ring.

Police in the US say that ring was using a mix of end-to-end encrypted messaging services and chat rooms to help hide the identity of the perpetrators, a common strategy to keep police off the scent.

But there were gaps, with some users in those chat rooms sometimes momentarily failing to use a Virtual Private Network service (VPN).

Those moments helped provide investigators with fragments of electronic footprints, including phone numbers.

Court documents show that late one day in early August last year, detectives from the Tempe Police Department in Arizona came across one such electronic trace of an Australian phone number linked to a WhatsApp account that had been present in some of those chat rooms.

It was Friend's phone number.

Court documents show that on at least one occasion, Friend shared a video child sexual abuse material with 21 other people.

Tempe Police Detective Natalie Barela told the ABC that the use of end-to-end encryption made investigations very difficult.

"Many of ICAC's cases are lengthy, complex investigations that require patience and fortitude," Detective Natalie Barela said.

"These agencies are continually engaged in proactive and reactive investigations and prosecutions of persons involved in child abuse and exploitation involving the internet."

Australian Federal Police badge
Facebook is involved in 40 to 60 per cent of child exploitation reports received by the AFP.(Australian Federal Police, File Photo)

Australian child abuse reports skyrocket during COVID-19

A spokesperson from the AFP said the organisation continued to receive thousands of reports of child sexual exploitation each year, and the numbers were growing at a rapid rate during COVID-19.

Over that time, 1,214 charges had been laid against 161 people across Australia and 67 children had been removed from harm, the AFP said.

Material on Facebook made up between 40 to 60 per cent of child exploitation reports received by the AFP.

The AFP said the use of encryption, often used by the criminal underworld in the drug trade, was increasingly being used to share child abuse material.

"Global law enforcement has raised with Facebook that its plans to move to end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger will severely curtail referrals we receive about child exploitation material," the spokesperson said.

The AFP said perhaps as many as half of its tip-offs from the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children could vanish if end-to-end encryption was adopted "without a solution to safeguard children."

"When Facebook Messenger moves to end-to-end encryption, it will throw many investigations into the dark, meaning it will be harder for the AFP to identify online child sex offenders and their victims."

A senior Australian investigator within the AFP told the ABC that COVID-19 had seen a spike in online child abuse activity on the dark web since restrictions and lockdowns came into effect globally, a claim later corroborated by the AFP.

"Offenders are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to find more potential child victims, as children and young people are spending an increasing amount of time online with the possibility of limited adult supervision," the AFP spokesperson said.

The ABC has contacted Facebook for comment. 



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