Eye reflections in photos could catch child abusers

Reflections caught in the eyes of child sex abuse victims in photographs could help police to identify and catch the perpetrators, thanks to new research from two UK universities

Psychologists at the University of York and the University of Glasgow were able to extract images of people standing behind the photographer from reflections in the eyes of subjects. They then discovered that they were identifiable by third parties, despite their low resolution and poor quality.

The iris typically occupies only 0.5 per cent of the area of a person’s face, meaning that the amount of reflected data that can be extracted to form an image is extremely small. Advances in camera technology have increased the number of pixels captured over the years but researchers found that the quality of images of reflected faces remains around 30,000 times lower than a face directly visible in the same photograph.

In the experiments people were photographed with a 39 megapixel camera and reflections in the eyes of the subject were cropped and magnified. The quality of camera used in the experiment is already available commercially; Nokia’s Lumia 1020 smartphone is already on the market with a more powerful41 megapixel sensor.

Previous research has shown that people can identify familiar faces from extremely low resolution images, down to just seven by ten pixels. Current technology means that it is possible to gather images of at least this quality. But the scientists were surprised to discover that even unfamiliar faces are distinguishable at this quality.

During the experiments it was shown that those familiar with a person could identify them from reflected images 84 per cent of the time. Crucially for law enforcement use, even those unfamiliar with the person were able to correctly state whether or not they were the same individual as that shown in a second, a high-quality image with an accuracy of 71 per cent in a second experiment.

The researchers suggest that the technology could prove invaluable for police in linking multiple suspects with each other in complex criminal cases or in identifying child sex abusers who personally photographed their victims. It could also be used to gather more information in hostage scenarios where videos or images are released.

Researchers said that if images were available from both eyes in an image, that a 3D image could be constructed from the subject’s viewpoint.


In the last two years (2012), nearly 26 million child abuse images have been confiscated in England and Wales. The total comes from just five of the 43 police forces in England and Wales which were able to check their records.

The figures are in stark contrast to 1990 – before the internet became hugely popular – when the Home Office estimated there were just 7,000 hard copy images in circulation in the UK. Now, at least five times that amount are being confiscated every single day.

In some investigations the sheer scale of images is so immense that police concentrate on a sample.

The pictures are graded from level one – the lowest – to category five, which involves sadism. Many of the pictures involve children under 10 and even babies appear in some

Indecent images of children refers to images or films (also known as child abuse images) and in some cases, writings depicting sexually explicit activities involving a child. Abuse of the child occurs during the sexual acts which are recorded in the production of child pornography, and several professors of psychology state that memories of the abuse are maintained as long as visual records exist, are accessed, and are “exploited perversely.”

The COPINE Scale is a rating system created in Ireland and used in the United Kingdom to categorise the severity of images of child sex abuse, and thus use in the sentencing of offenders in a UK court of law.

The sentencing guidelines from the Sentencing Council should be applied in determining mode of trial for cases involving indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of children.

In looking at the nature of the material the Sentencing Council has categorised such material into five levels of seriousness with level five being the most serious.

Level one: Images of erotic posing, with no sexual activity;

Level two: Non-penetrative sexual activities between children, or solo masturbation by a child;

Level three: Non-penetrative sexual activity between adults and children;

Level four: Penetrative sexual activity involving a child or children, or both children and adults;

Level five: Sadism/Torture or involving the penetration of, or by, an animal.

The age of the child is now an aggravating factor and police officers should be encouraged to ensure that images are divided not only according to the categories set out above, but also as to whether the child is under 13 years, or 13 – 15 years and 16 – 17 years old.

When dealing with cases involving thousands of images police officers have approached the CPS in order to determine at what point they can stop looking at images. It is a matter for the police to decide how many images to view. If the police decide not to view all the images that is a risk analysis only they are able to take. There is of course always the danger that if only 100,000 images out of 500,000 are viewed that image 100,001 may show the suspect abusing a child.

The revised five-point scale answers one of the criticisms that had previously been leveled against it, that being that penetrative activity between minors has been raised from level 2 to level 4, an important and significant change. However it has failed to answer one criticism and raised a potential question.

Level 1 images continue to refer to erotic posing and the question has sometimes been raised as to whether that means that non-posed photographs, particularly those that could be construed as naturist photographs, are indecent or not. It is important to note that the sentencing guideline is relevant solely to the issue of sentence and not what does, or does not, amount to an indecent photograph.

Legal definitions of child abuse images generally include sexual images involving prepubescents and pubescent or post-pubescent minors and computer-generated images that appear to involve them. Most possessors of child pornography who are arrested are found to possess images of prepubescent children; possessors of pornographic images of post-pubescent minors are less likely to be prosecuted, even though those images also fall within the statutes.

Child abuse images are among the fastest growing criminal segments on the Internet. Producers of child pornography try to avoid prosecution by distributing their material across national borders, though this issue is increasingly being addressed with regular arrests of suspects from a number of countries occurring over the last few years. The prepubescent pornography is viewed and collected by paedophiles for a variety of purposes, ranging from private sexual uses, trading with other paedophiles, preparing children for sexual abuse as part of the process known as “child grooming” or enticement leading to entrapment for sexual exploitation, such as production of new child pornography or child prostitution. Child abuse images are illegal and censored in most jurisdictions in the world.