Photo credit International Justice Mission (IJM)

Earlier this year the National Crime Agency reported that Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM*) can be accessed on the internet with just three clicks of a mouse. The mistaken belief that such egregious sights can only be unearthed in the depths of the dark web, hidden in password-protected, paedophilic chat rooms, has, it appears, been proven erroneous. In fact, a study recently found that 70% of cybersex trafficking cases (the pay-per-view live-streaming of child sexual abuse) takes place on the surface web, repurposing the familiar global platforms we use to communicate, socialise and share our lives with.

The NSPCC warned that Facebook could in fact become a “one stop grooming shop” after it was found in the UK, that almost half of the online sex crimes reported to Police took place on the company’s platforms (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Whatsapp).

Pornhub, the largest and most popular porn site in the world, has also come under fire after numerous cases of child rape were found being streamed on their site, not to mention the abundance of adult trafficking victims who regularly have to petition for their videos to be removed. Pornhub, incidentally, offered its customers a free 3-month trial of their premium version, as an incentive for those trapped at home during the Corona-lockdown. Data from a separate study suggests that online pornography, for some men, can be a precursor to seeking child sexual abuse material, which can, in turn, leads to contact abuse.

It has been widely reported that the conditions of Covid-19 have proved to be the perfect incubator for this particular brand of venality, which perhaps represents the virus’s very worst side-effect. In the UK, the Internet Watch Foundation has seen a 50% rise in reports of online child abuse material, since the start of lockdown, and in the US, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports a rise of 106%, this year on last. The Australia Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) has recorded a 122% increase in reports and discovered that several child abuse websites have been crashing due to the weight of demand. With much of the world confined to their homes, combined with the proliferation of internet accessibility in countries with extreme poverty, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this malignant by-product of the technological era.

Bill Gates famously said; “the internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow”, but he failed to mention how many debased back alleys and sordid side streets this new world would birth.

The anti-slavery NGO, International Justice Mission, recently shared the findings of a 6-year study into the prevalence of cybersex trafficking in the Philippines. From their data, they were able to determine the customer typology as: male, white, western, aged between 20–60, employed, and tech-savvy. They also found that 9% of the offenders were already known to the police for committing ‘contact offenses’. It was further discovered that 86% of the victims were girls and the median age was just 11 years old, with certain cases involving toddlers and babies. The two offender profiles were identified as either family members producing ‘self-facilitated’ content (83%), or the more organised criminals, who had created commercial cyber-sex dens with vulnerable, imprisoned children (17%).

In a time when collective opinion rarely exists without a contrary view, I would hope that it is fair to say that such criminality meets universal disapproval, if not repulsion, regardless of culture, geography, or jurisdiction. And when the offending location is cyberspace itself, should we be asking Gates, Zuckerberg, and the rest of the internet’s Godfathers, what they’re doing about it?

The internet, of course, transcends traditional jurisdictional boundaries, making online crimes notoriously difficult to police. Tech companies must therefore have a role to play in this new world order, and to some extent, they already do. There are numerous software programs made accessible to law enforcement that harness the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI). One example is Thorn, the anti-trafficking NGO founded by actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, which developed a piece of technology (Spotlight) to help law enforcement identify child trafficking victims, reportedly reducing their investigation time by more than half. There have also been Chatbots developed to masquerade as children and engage would-be offenders on the prowl. Some chatbots act as a deterrent and offer information, advice, and links to support (see: Seattle Against Slavery), whilst others have been designed to do the reverse and entice as much identifying information as possible to pass to law enforcement (see: Tierre Des Homes). Microsoft was indeed instrumental in the industry’s early response, when they, in partnership with Dartmouth College, developed PhotoDNA in 2009, a free software tool now used by over 150 organisations worldwide to assist in the detection, disruption, and reporting of millions of child sexual exploitation images. They have since gone on to develop a language analysis software that identifies potential grooming on its Xbox gaming platform (see: Project Artemis).

Sweetie. Chatbot designed by NGO Tierre des homes.

Unfortunately, there has yet to be a technology developed that can identify the live streaming of child abuse (cybersex trafficking), and when such activity is conducted behind encrypted messenger apps, it presents some considerable challenge for law enforcement. With Facebook intending to further encrypt its messenger app, should we then believe that the privacy of customers is prioritised above the safety of children?

The responsibility does not, however, lay solely at the feet of the tech industry: Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Counter-Terrorist Financing (CTF) regulations require financial institutions to issue a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR), alerting authorities to the possibility of criminal malfeasance. There is no legal requirement, however, for the same technology to be used to identify John, Martin, and Clive, who all, rather curiously, send small quantities of money to Vilma in the Philippines every other weekend. There are, of course, certain banks and money transfer agents proactively cooperating with internet service providers (ISP’s), NGO’s and law enforcement to eradicate the illicit exploitation of their platforms (see: Child Rescue Coalition and Project PROTECT). But just like the ISP’s, their involvement needs to be less reactive and more strategic, less optional and more mandatory, less best-practice, and more common practice.

In a recent episode of our Podcast, I asked Alani Bankhead, a Special Agent investigating Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) in Hawaii, to explain how we should best protect our children online. Interestingly, her reply didn’t mention chatbots or algorithms, rather it centered around the overwhelming need for parents to have regular, open dialogue with their children about what they encounter on the internet.

As long as these crimes are considered low-risk by the everyday armchair offenders who commit them, we’re unlikely to see a decline. A recent report by IJM titled Falling Short, found that in the UK, the average prison sentence handed out to people (men) convicted of viewing and directing the online sexual abuse of children is just two years and four months. A 12-year-old survivor was quoted in the report: “I will not accept two years imprisonment for OSEC offenders because they abused and took us away from our families, and this should not be taken lightly. They destroyed our innocence. It’s not possible to let go of the things they did to us.”

If this ‘new normal’ is to exist for many months longer, the laws of supply and demand dictate that many more of the world’s most vulnerable children are at risk.

I still recall my nervous description of the Crime Reduction Triangle in my interview to join the Police, as I explained to the panel that by removing just one arm of the triangle (Victim, Offender, Location) you have a chance of stopping the crime from taking place. If the location of this crime is made more hostile, through the concerted and coordinated efforts of technology companies, financial institutions, law enforcement, and the NGO sector — perhaps we stand a chance of turning the tide, holding perpetrators to justice, and protecting vulnerable children from further harm.

Written by Bryn Frere-Smith, Founder of Blue Bear Coffee Co. and Host of the Justice & Coffee Podcast. (28/7/20)

(*CSAM — is no longer referred to as Child Porn to break the association with it representing a variant of legal, consensual pornography)

Anti Trafficking Campaigner, Founder of The Justice Business CIC and Host of the Justice & Coffee Podcast.