An ongoing volatile situation that is difficult to read

An ongoing volatile situation that is difficult to read
16 March, 2021 Guest Writer

An ongoing volatile situation that is difficult to read

The NetClean Report – COVID-19 Impact 2020, is the sixth report in the NetClean Report series. The reports aim to promote greater awareness and more insight into child sexual abuse crime.

This report, released in early 2021, differs from the standard inquiry as it deals with the fallout of the major worldwide pandemic. Rather than looking at trends and indexing a rise in crime year on year, we asked law enforcement officers and experts to comment on how COVID-19 has affected child sexual abuse crime.

As predicted, many of the respondents indicated that their responses can only provide an early, first insight into how social restrictions and lockdowns have affected this crime. Still, in our report, a clear majority, nearly two thirds, reported that the fallout from the pandemic has affected CSA crime.

Cathal Delaney, Head of Team, Analysis, Project Twins, EC3, Europol expands here on the results.

By Cathal Delaney, Head of Team, Analysis, Project Twins, EC3, Europol

We have had a number of concerns during this pandemic, but we won’t know the outcome of these until sometime in the future. There is a potential increase in victimisation, both online and offline. Without access to normal support mechanisms, such as adults at schools, child victims risk being deprived of the ability to report. Therefore, when restrictions ease there might be an increase in reports.

We have an ongoing volatile situation, with national and local lockdowns, and different restrictions, which makes the situation very difficult to read, and I think it is too early to see the long-term effects of this pandemic.

Online activity

The data that we have from different organisations and member states shows a clear increase in offender activity in seeking child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online. It’s been seen in peer-to-peer activity, the number of blocked websites known to contain CSAM, the volumes of cybertips, and reports to hotlines.

The darknet

We have also seen activity on the darknet, and early on during the pandemic there was talk on darknet forums that the pandemic was providing more opportunities to groom children. We’ve also seen an increase on the darknet in the sharing of “capping”, which is livestreamed videos captured with or without the knowledge of the child. The level of activity among offenders on the darknet has otherwise remained the same during the pandemic, illustrating their resilience even during increased restrictions on private time.

New material

If more new CSAM has been produced during the pandemic, we are unlikely to see it for some time. In the darknet communities, new material is connected to status and usually only shared among closed groups. Circulation to a wider community usually happens at a later stage.

Possible explanations

There are a number of possible explanations to why the COVID-19 pandemic might have increased the risk of child sexual exploitation (CSE). The most significant factor is the additional time that both adults and children have spent online during the pandemic, and the potential lack of supervision of children online. Simultaneously children have been left without their usual support mechanisms. When it comes to physical abuse, CSE forms part of the body of domestic violence, and with reports of domestic violence increasing in the wake of COVID-19, this could also affect CSE. Another observation is that the patterns of activity on peer-to-peer are similar to those of holiday periods, when families are staying together for an extended period of time, and there are fewer things to do and fewer places to go.

“We can never tell how much CSAM exists online. Therefore it may be years before we really know the effects of the pandemic.”

Law enforcement capacity

The pandemic meant that Europol quickly had to adapt and prioritise its resources, but we’ve continued to support our member countries throughout this period. We have not been able to support on site, which is something that we would normally do, but operations and arrests have still been successfully carried out. Early in the pandemic we saw a change in reports generated by NCMEC. Normally we can differentiate between reports generated by moderators and automatic detection, but with this situation it was not always the case. It was clear that service providers had in many cases sent staff home, and so there was less moderated material than before. That meant that knowing with certainty which reports law enforcement could or could not act upon was more difficult than usual.

Too early to tell

We can never tell how much CSAM exists online. Therefore it may be years before we really know the effects of the pandemic. It is still too early to know whether the increases are an effect of COVID-19 or not; research will have to establish that at a later stage. What we do know is that some countries report a drop in hands-on child sexual abuse reports, which indicates underreporting. The likelihood is, that even if there is a drop, children are still being abused and material created.