Pavlo Gonchar | Lightrocket | Getty Images
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.
“Wickr needs to do more in regards to identifying and taking steps to prevent child sexual abuse material being traded on their platform,” said John Shehan, vice president of NCMEC.
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 requires that electronic communication service providers report known or discovered child sexual abuse material to NCMEC.
Meta’s reports to the center numbered in the millions in 2021: Facebook made 22,118,952 reports, Instagram made 3,393,654 reports, and WhatsApp made 1,372,696 reports. Experts said a high level of reporting was a positive thing because it signaled that a company was working proactively to detect child exploitation material on its platform.
Wickr has far fewer users than those apps but self-reported only 15 instances of child sexual abuse imagery, despite experts and law enforcement saying there’s clear use of the app by people trading such material 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.
“It’s very clear that they’re not taking any proactive efforts on their own to identify this type of activity,” he said, referring to the numbers.
“Wickr absolutely responds appropriately to, and cooperates with, law enforcement on these critical matters,” the spokesperson said.
Child sexual abuse imagery on the internet has been an issue since the early days of the consumer web, but the problem has ballooned in recent years as content creation and sharing have become easier than ever.
But law enforcement officials have at times expressed frustration with apps that offer the kind of end-to-end encryption that Wickr uses, particularly if the platforms aren’t proactively working to combat criminal activity.
Wickr, an early player in the world of end-to-end encrypted messengers, works like most privacy-focused messaging apps. Users communicate with individuals or groups in an encrypted format, which strips messages of identifying details. That ensures only the sender and receiver can ever see their content, leaving hardly any trace of details about the conversation which could be accessed by law enforcement or Amazon. That technology, along with settings that allow for self-deleting messages, has made Wickr an attractive tool for many who seek privacy, including individuals conducting criminal activity.
Wickr requires no personal information to sign up, unlike its competitors WhatsApp and Signal, asking only for a username and password. Once on the app, users can directly connect with others individually or in group chats via search or an invite.
Its closed system means people typically use other parts of the internet to connect before moving to Wickr. That funnel from public to private spaces is oftentimes seen in child exploitation, according to Victoria Baines, an expert on child exploitation crimes who has worked with the U.K.’s 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.
On Reddit, nearly a dozen subreddits, some with more than 50,000 members, serve as hubs for exchanging Wickr handles. Many posts contain thinly veiled references to child sexual abuse material. In the most popular Wickr subreddit, posts about teens or children are posted on a near-daily basis. Many posts refer to incest, seeking “bad” or “prvy” parents. “I love homemade vids, especially ones with the whole family,” reads one typical post accompanied by a Wickr user name.
In other subreddits, users explicitly ask teenagers to communicate with them via Wickr and solicit homemade images and videos of incest. “I just got my twelve year old cousin (f) into Wickr and she wants some new people to text, preferably girls to start her off,” one post reads. Others are accompanied by non-explicit photos of people who appear to be under 18.
It’s an issue that some Reddit users are well aware of, and some subreddits have banned posting Wickr handles because of their association with child sexual 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.”
“Taboo” and “perv” are frequently used as code online for content related to child sexual abuse.
The posts are so numerous that other subreddits have begun to take note. In one activist subreddit dedicated to calling out “degenerate” communities, a post from January reads, “The wickr pages on reddit are just full of pervs sending cp around to each other. How do we get this banned?”
In its content rules, Reddit says, “avoid posting illegal content or soliciting or facilitating illegal or prohibited transactions.” Many communities devoted to exchanging Wickr information still survive today, but NBC News identified seven subreddits that have been banned from the platform that included “Wickr” in their names. Five of those bans were explicitly for content that violated Reddit’s rules against sexually suggestive content that includes minors. Reddit cited rules about unmoderated communities and communities that were made to explicitly dodge community guidelines in the bans of two other subreddits called “taboowickr” and “wickr__nsfw.” Reddit did not respond to questions about why it’s previously banned Wickr subreddits.
In a statement, a Reddit spokesperson said: “Our sitewide policies explicitly prohibit any sexual or suggestive content involving minors or someone who appears to be a minor. This includes child sexual abuse imagery and any other content that sexualizes minors. Our dedicated Safety teams use a combination of automated tooling and human review to detect and action this content across the platform. We regularly ban communities for engaging in the behavior in question, and we will continue to review and action violating subreddits, users, and content.”
Reddit isn’t the only platform where Wickr users try to find one another.
A search for “Wickr” on Tumblr domains revealed blogs where people advertise their Wickr handles alongside sexually explicit adult images and non-explicit images that appear to be of teenagers, as well as drugs that appear to be for sale. Tumblr deleted several blogs flagged to the company by NBC News after a request for comment. In a statement, a Tumblr representative said, “Child sexual abuse and exploitation, including sexually suggestive content involving a minor, is not allowed on Tumblr. 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. Additionally, any child sexual abuse material we discover is immediately removed and reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.” The Tumblr representative said the company uses PhotoDNA, a photo detection software created by Microsoft and licensed to platforms for the sole purpose of combating child abuse.
On Twitter, a search for “Wickr” yielded posts with Wickr usernames and 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. Other posts advertise various drugs for sale.
Twitter says it suspended several accounts flagged to the company while reporting this article. In a statement, Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said, “Twitter has a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual exploitation content. We aggressively fight online child sexual abuse and have heavily invested in technology and tools to enforce our policy. We have rules against non-consensual nudity and take strong enforcement action against this content.”
The court filings reviewed illustrate how people on Wickr openly trade child sexual abuse material once connected with groups or other individuals on the app. Even when law enforcement has gathered large amounts of evidence, Wickr’s cooperation appears to be minimal, according to the company’s responses to the court filings and its own web page that contains information about how it responds to legal requests.
A national law enforcement officer who routinely works on child sex abuse investigations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety, said that he’s given up trying to work with Wickr to secure evidence of child sex abuse happening on the platform.
“It’s not worth the effort of going through the process,” he said. “It’s end-to-end encrypted. So you get no content.”
To request information from Wickr, law enforcement must secure a legal order such as a search warrant, subpoena or court order, according to the company’s website. Once one is submitted, Wickr says, it’s the company’s policy to notify a user that their information has been the subject of an information request. The company warns on its website that it is not able to provide information from encrypted chats, and only has access to data such as the date an account was created, the type of device on which such an account was used, the date of its last use, the total number of sent and received messages, avatar images and the Wickr version number.
Given the lack of substantial information Wickr provides, the officer said, they were “convinced they can do more at the user end.”
In one of the only cases reviewed in which Wickr was said to have responded to a search warrant, an FBI special agent testified in 2021 that Australian authorities observed Michael Glenn Whitmore of Anchorage, Alaska, in several groups of Wickr users trading and distributing child abuse material.
In one group, users commented on images of a 12-year-old, according to the complaint, and described in detail how they would abuse the child. In another group, Whitmore uploaded a video of an infant being sexually abused. The complaint said that he was part of at least five other Wickr groups they believed to be devoted to child exploitation. According to the complaint, he admitted to sharing child sexual abuse material with “slightly less than 100 different people” using Wickr, among other apps.
Whitmore has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. A representative for him did not respond to a request for comment.
The complaint noted that a search warrant was served on Wickr for information about the account, which resulted in just the date of creation, the type of device used, the number of messages sent and received, and the profile picture of the account, which was described as “an anime image of three children wearing only diapers.”
In its “Legal Process Guidelines,” Wickr is explicit about the limited amount of information it’s willing to provide law enforcement. “Non-public information about Wickr users’ accounts will not be released to law enforcement except in response to appropriate legal process such as a subpoena, court order, or other valid legal process,” the page reads. “Requests for the contents of communications require a valid search warrant from an agency with proper jurisdiction over Wickr. However, our response to such a request will reflect that the content is not stored on our servers or that, in very limited instances where a message has not yet been retrieved by the recipient, the content is encrypted data which is indecipherable.”
Wickr says it prohibits illegal activities in its terms of service but has in the past been staunchly against law enforcement intervention on tech platforms at large. In 2016, the Wickr Foundation, the company’s nonprofit arm which began in 2015, filed a friend of the court brief in support of Apple arguing against providing law enforcement tools that would provide access to encrypted content.
“Deliberately compromised digital security would undermine human rights around the globe,” the brief reads. In the case, Apple was ordered to assist law enforcement to unlock an iPhone that belonged to a mass shooter in San Bernardino, California. The order was eventually vacated.
The debate marked a growing conflict between law enforcement and tech companies about encryption andpotential access to evidence in encrypted environments. Wickr’s position at the time wasn’t new, and was largely representative of many companies looking to maintain the security of encrypted environments. But Wickr’s seeming inaction in developing alternative methods to prevent crime on itsplatform in lieu of a “backdoor” to get around encryption stands apart from other tech companies such as Meta or Microsoft, which 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. The app applied encryption typically used by defense officials to personal messaging, stripping messages of any identifiable metadata, and giving users the option to sign up anonymously and have their messages self-delete.
By 2015, the company had raised $39 million in funding, seizing on a public just beginning to gain interest in data privacy. Sell, who did not respond to a request for comment, sold the company as staunchly pro-privacy, claiming early on that she had refused to give the FBI a backdoor into the platform. That same year, news reports started to trickle in about how the app was being used to commit crimes.
The first report from Australia’s Herald Sun said that Craiglist drug dealers were instructing interested parties to contact them on Wickr. Numerous outlets also reported in 2015 that the Islamic State terrorist group was using Wickr to recruit fighters. In 2016, one of the first successful child pornography prosecutions involving Wickr resulted in Elijah William Roberts of Utah being sentenced to 60 months in prison for the possession of child sexual abuse material, according to the Deseret Morning News. Roberts was released on probation in 2020 and rearrested in 2021 after a U.S. probation officer said Roberts was discovered to have an unauthorized flip phone that contained child sexual abuse material on it, according to court documents. Roberts is currently detained and awaiting trial, and his representative did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2017, at least three individuals were successfully prosecuted for crimes that involved child exploitation and abuse over Wickr, according to court records. 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 moved the communications with the undercover agent to Wickr, before claiming that he sexually abused a 13-year-old disabled boy when he was a supervisor at a youth center. He and the undercover agent eventually went on to organize a crosscountry trip over Wickr on which Vensland believed he’d be able to sexually abuse a 9-year-old boy. He was arrested at the airport. In 2020, he pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and traveling with the intent to sexually abuse a minor. A representative for Vensland did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Court cases stemming from child exploitation on Wickr appear to have increased in number each year after that, according to the court cases reviewed.
“I think once they realize that there’s a particular platform that’s not taking any measures to identify any illegal activity that may be occurring on their platform as it relates to child abuse. It becomes the platform of choice and these individuals connect with one another,” Shehan, of the NCMEC, said.
In 2020, at least 21 child sexual abuse material and exploitation cases involving Wickr were prosecuted globally.
Wickr was purchased by Amazon Web Services in June 2021. Before and after the acquisition, Wickr brought in millions of dollars through contracts with government organizations such as 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 the Defense Department would not disclose how they use Wickr’s enterprise products after a previous NBC News investigation.
Wickr’s consumer product, Wickr Me. has steadily grown its user base since the start of 2018, gaining 11.6 million users, according to the analytics firm Sensor Tower, but that growth is minuscule compared to interest in its competitor Signal, which has become a mainstream secure messaging platform and saw 26 times the number of downloads that Wickr did in 2021.
Wickr’s lack of action puts it at odds with what other companies have done to address the problem of child sexual abuse material.
Baines noted that WhatsApp, which is also end-to-end encrypted, drastically increased its reporting of child sexual abuse material by analyzing aspects of user profiles outside of encrypted chats, such as profile photos, usernames and metadata.
According to a Meta spokesperson, WhatsApp has implemented numerous features to proactively detect and prevent the spread of child exploitation material, including limiting how many people can be shared on a viral image at one time and using photo-matching technology on rules-violation reports submitted to the company by users and non-encrypted photos found in profile or group avatars. Meta says it also uses machine learning to scan usernames and group descriptions for a potential sign of child exploitation material.
Aside from the legal obligation to report such content, Baines said, “it’s morally the right thing to do to go looking for it.”
Shehan noted one report to NCMEC’s tip line from a Wickr user as an example of what goes unchecked on the platform, in which he said a user flagged a Wickr account that was named “BabyAbuse,” which used a profile photo of an infant being sexually assaulted.
“I would expect a company like Wickr, especially being a company and property advertised as being so closely aligned with AWS and Amazon, that they will be taking the right measures to identify this type of activity, especially even the account names and I mentioned that that’s the lowest hanging fruit that’s possible,” he said.
Some human rights activists cautioned against blaming end-to-end encryption for Wickr’s issues with child abuse imagery.
Anjana Rajan, chief technology officer of Polaris, an organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, disagreed with the argument that Wickr and other tech platforms need to compromise privacy to prevent trafficking and child exploitation, and said that governments should focus on solving societal issues that lead to crime.
“The debate is not around whether or not encryption is good or bad. It’s about how are traffickers exploiting vulnerabilities of vulnerable communities, and where are they doing that, and how do we actually get ahead of that vulnerability and meet that need,” she said.
“I think there’s oftentimes a bit of a boogeyman made around emerging technologies,” she said. “Technology is just a tool in which [crime] happens, but the underlying mechanisms need to be understood at its very core.”
Rajan said that she believes encryption is part of a “human rights toolkit” that can protect and empower victims. She posed the question: “How do we prevent abuse of these technologies rather than passing a broad, sweeping critique of a tool?”
Shehan said he believed that Wickr could do more without sacrificing its encrypted environment: “We really feel that in an encrypted environment, there are still ways that this activity can be identified. And companies like Wickr should be exploring how to make that happen within their platforms, while also preserving security.”
But, he said, if push comes to shove, he believes children should be the priority in the discussion around tech and child sexual abuse material. “We certainly definitely are big fans and supporters of privacy, but at the end of the day, not at the cost of children.”