We have not seen an increase in child sexual abuse crime during the COVID-19 pandemic
When we surveyed law enforcement forces from across the globe for the The NetClean Report – COVID-19 Impact 2020, we found that the answer as to whether the rate of CSAM crime has increased, decreased or stayed the same corresponded to lockdown measures. Where schools were closed, online CSA crime was reported to have increased, whereas in areas where schools remained open, police forces did not report any clear increase in crime rates (the survey was conducted June to October in 2020, so still early on in the pandemic).
In a comment to the report, PATRICK CORDNER, Head of Swedish Cybercrime Center (SC3), National Operative Department, set out why Sweden did not see the same early jump in numbers as other countries did.
During the spring of 2021 there have been a number of reports of a rise in online child sexual abuse crime in Sweden too, however it is too early to know how that rise compares to other countries surveyed in the report.
By Patrick Cordner, Head of Swedish Cybercrime Center (SC3), National Operative Department
It is still too early to know exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected child sexual abuse (CSA) crime. However, at the National Operative Department and the IT Crime Centres in Sweden we have so far not seen an increase of CSA crime as a result of the pandemic. Neither has it affected Swedish law enforcement capacity to investigate this type of crime.
We expect an increase in child sexual abuse material (CSAM) every year. As more CSAM is uploaded to the internet it adds to the total volume of material. More and more material is also classified by law enforcement, and as a result we discover even more.
The crime itself is also increasing. More material is being shared on peer-to-peer networks and there is an increase in platforms, such as chat apps and games, where children can be contacted. There is a steady increase in self-produced material. In those cases it is always difficult to know whether the child is being threatened in order to produce the material. Other trends are an increase in young people sharing CSAM, from the ages of twelve to twenty years old, and an increase in paid for livestreamed CSA, where the victims are based abroad.
No COVID-related increase
It is not unreasonable to think that with more adults spending more time at home, these activities would increase. However, from what we can tell now, the COVID-19 pandemic has not resulted in an accelerated and unexpected increase of neither CSAM nor other CSA crimes in Sweden.
It’s the same for NCMEC referrals. There is of course an increase in reports, but it is an expected increase, and we don’t see a peak related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Children rarely report sexual abuse, instead these crimes are often discovered in connection to other crimes, or with a considerable delay in time. Therefore, it is too early to tell if there has been an increase in hands- on sexual abuse, but we have no indications that this would be the case.
I do see a potential risk for an increase in livestreamed CSA. With travel restrictions in place, offenders may instead turn to livestreaming. My worries with livestreamed CSA are that it is very difficult to discover and prevent.
“From what we can tell now, COVID-19 has not resulted in an accelerated and unexpected increase of neither CSAM nor other CSA crimes in Sweden.”
Schools stayed open
Sweden stands out from other countries in Europe during this period, as primary and secondary schools (children between 6–15 years old) did not close. Children did not spend more time at home and online during daytime hours. During this period parents have spent more time at home, which if anything has led to more control and more supervised time than the other way around.
CSA crime has been prioritised and intensified throughout the pandemic, due to the fact that our new organisation, with regional IT Crime Centres, is now up and running, and we have been allocated more resources than before.
The only effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the way we work is that more police officers have been working from home, and it’s not possible to review CSAM in those environments. We’ve had to come into the office to do that. We’ve even had fewer sick-days recorded during this period.
International collaboration has slowed somewhat, and further education and skills development has had to take a step back. However, this has not affected our capacity to investigate crimes, or bring offenders to justice. The judicial system, judges and prosecutors, have also been able to continue working pretty much as normal.
I think that only in a few years’ time will we be able to analyse what really happened during this period, and the effects that it had on CSA crime. What we already know is that Sweden was unique, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, in that schools did not close. With children living their lives almost as normal, it is not surprising if CSA crime also remained largely unaffected.