Online child abuse increase during lockdown
“Abusers are using our most modern technology, one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements, to commit some of the worst crimes we know.” Ylva Johansonn, European Commissioner for Home Affairs
The web world has always had two sides of the same coin: on the one hand, it can provide infinite resources and connect people worldwide; on the other one, these very means can give way to obscene and extremely dangerous acts.
A case in point is online child sexual abuse: not only some people are able to get in contact with minors and/or extort material, but also, in particular in the Dark Web, there are forums were people exchange Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) and encourage each other to perform acts of child abuse.
This issue has existed for a long time, but since 2012 has become even more important, as the Dark Web began to be used for illegal activities including the exchange of material and information between harassers.
Indeed through anonymous accounts, more people have been able to access this corner of the web, performing illegal actions in complete tranquillity. Just that year the European Commission and the United States launched the “Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse”. The goal of this project, which involved 54 countries, was to bring the issue to an international table in order to find a collective awareness-raising system on the problem and take more concrete actions, trying to reduce the number of online harassers.
This was one of the several international campaigns created to address the problem. Another one was born in 2014 under the name of "We Protect": a global stakeholder to fight the online child abuse and extortion. Born in Britain, it was supported by 63 countries, 30 ONGs and 20 among the most important technology companies.
This was the first of a series of campaigns that followed one another over the years, both at European and national level, involving countries from all over the world and ONGs.
However, there has never been such an urgency to address the issue and develop a strong and incisive European strategy like this. Indeed, a Europol study published on 19 May showed how the rate of online child abuse and CSAM exchange has dramatically increased over these months of lockdown. The impossibility to move prevented harassers to reach the destinations of child sex tourism; this eliminated the possibility to meet the victims but turned into a growth in the exchange of online material, as it gets easier and easier to find it especially because of the increasing amount of time that minors spend on the web.
The Europol report highlighted several data proving the gravity of the situation. Among them, the fact that the Member States of the Union recorded an increasing number of blocked accesses from people who tried to enter websites containing CSAM during the lockdown. Moreover, in some of these countries, this growth would be linked to solicitations and extortions.
Nonetheless, it is analyzing the activities in the Dark Web that it can be noticed how serious the situation is. The private company Web-IQ, which monitors the Dark Web and other online activities, informed the Europol about the heavy activity increase on a big forum consisting in a group chat for CSAM exchange. Indeed, if the number of daily posts has been zero for several weeks of February, between March and April it has never been beneath 100, with peaks of 600 post a day. The material shared varies from videos extorted with threats to the victims, to material obtained by silently stalking the minor or recordings of videos shared by minors with their pears on social networks. The problem of material consensually shared online by minors becomes serious as soon as these harassers have access to it by creating fake accounts and impersonating pears, thus managing to see social profiles and online streaming – material that they record and share in forums.
The sharing activity among harassers saw a growth of the 50% during the lockdown, as highlighted by the report. These data prove that harassers are able to bypass the current laws for web security, managing to obtain material from minors that do not have sufficient awareness of the risks concerning the online world and the precautions they should take whenever they share content.
The new work programme of the European Commission, published on 29 January 2020 and likely to be adopted in the last three months of 2020, highlighted the importance of having a unified strategy leading to a more effective fight against online child abuse.
Since a surge in the problem like that caused by Covid-19 was unimaginable, the Commission had to resume the debate on this issue in order to underline its priority.
In a webinar organised on 9 June to find a European response to fight online child abuse, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson open with a powerful speech on the importance of taking action.
Several hypothesis of EU-level responses were outlined:
• Working on raising awareness on the issue;
• Increasing international cooperation to catch the harassers - as the exchange of material and information involves different countries - and creating a European response to the problem;
• Improving police training and technological materials in order to help them fight this "tsunami of horrible content". Moreover, each Member State should have a special police unity ready to fight these abuses on its national territory;
• Collaborating with the "Internet companies" in reporting and fighting CSAM exchange;
• Finding a technological solution to address the problem of encrypting, which still protects harassers and limits the work of protecting minors.
Finally, the Commissioner Johansson declared that she will soon outline the European strategy to fight online child abuse. As we have seen, the problem exists and is increasing. What we can hope is that, by the end of the year, a strong action plan will be developed and that this will be a good opportunity to find a European response to an issue that affects all the Member States.
• Europol, “Exploiting Isolation: Offenders and victims of online child sexual abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic”, 19/6/2020: ‹https://www.europol.europa.eu/publications-documents/exploiting-isolation-offenders-and-victims-of-online-child-sexual-abuse-during-covid-19-pandemic›;
• European Parliament, “EU Strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse”, 06/2020:‹file:///C:/Users/Vale/Downloads/promoting-our-european-way-of-life_eu-strategy-to-fight-child-sexual-abuse_2020-06-01.pdf›;
• European Commission, “Speech by Commissioner Johansson at a webinar on “Preventing and combating child sexual abuse & exploitation: towards an EU response”, 9/6/2020: ‹https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/johansson/announcements/speech-commissioner-johansson-webinar-preventing-and-combating-child-sexual-abuse-exploitation_en›;
• European Commission, Migration and Home Affairs, “We protect Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online”: ‹https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/organized-crime-and-human-trafficking/global-alliance-against-child-abuse_en›.
Translated by Roberta Sforza