Law enforcement has adapted to the challenges
In the final post from part one of the The NetClean Report – COVID-19 Impact 2020, Uri Sadeh, Coordinator of the Crimes against Children Unit, INTERPOL writes that one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement was to adapt to the changes that the pandemic brought. More collaborative work across borders negated the lack of ability to travel, and meant that law enforcement was able to continue to monitor and fight CSA crime. He also sets out how long term societal changes due to the pandemic, increased poverty and more reliance on the internet, might fuel an upswing in online child sexual abuse crime.
By Uri Sadeh, Coordinator of the Crimes against Children Unit, INTERPOL
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected how law enforcement work, and in some cases also law enforcement and judicial capacity across the world. There has been a temporary reduction in use of the INTERPOL International Child Sexual Exploitations (ICSE) database, and data shows an increase in the amount of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) consumed and circulated. However, in our view the increase has been more moderate than has frequently been reported.
We released a report in September 2020 that shows the detriment that COVID-19 has had on law enforcement capacity to investigate child sexual abuse (CSA) crime. Problems include victims finding it difficult to report the crime, and courts in some countries being closed down, or processes significantly slowed down.
Decreased use of ICSE
One of the clear findings is a decreased use of INTERPOL’s ICSE database. The database is used by victim identification specialists worldwide to analyse and compare CSAM.
We found that differences in use of the database, were unrelated to how severely countries had been affected by COVID-19, and unrelated to their level of techno- logical development. It was rather individual policy decisions of the use of personnel during this period, and whether CSA has remained prioritised or not, that influenced the use of the database.
Adapted to the situation
In the beginning of the pandemic law enforcement was quite affected, however, it has adapted to the situation, and as a result agencies across the world collaborate to deal with this crime; physically working in silos, but effectively using online channels. There is of course reduced ability to travel, but international cooperation, and identification of both victims and offenders is ongoing.
Increase in redistribution
From our data, we did see an increase in redistribution of CSAM particularly in peer-to-peer networks and in the amount of self-produced material. Our member countries also reported an increase in activity on darknet forums. There is a possible correlation between darknet chats and production of new material, however it will take time, probably years, before the scale of such potential material comes to the attention of law enforcement and the true impact of this period can be analysed.
We believe that at the outset there was a tendency to exaggerate the spike in CSA crime, in different communications. For example, there were a lot of reports of zoom bombings, but when we asked our member countries, these were isolated incidents.
A rise in the number of NCMEC reports was also widely reported. There was an early increase; however, it was largely due to a change in the workflow due to COVID working conditions, which made processing faster. It was also a result of some files going viral without criminal intent. Platform providers that report to NCMEC, have had their staff working from home. As a result their ability to analyse suspected CSAM was reduced.
We need more time to understand the consequences of the pandemic. Both adults and children were highly present online prior to the pandemic. While time spent online has increased, confinement does not necessarily increase risk, and depending on the family context, could also provide a more controlled environment than during normal periods. Restrictions in travel also means a reduction in travel of transnational sex offences.
A potential risk is linked to the fact that home online schooling has led to children being exposed and introduced to the internet earlier than they would be otherwise. We know that the internet has an addictive aspect, and the impact of a generation being put online at such early stage remains
to be seen.
The aftermath of the pandemic may lead to increased poverty and more unstable social structures in some countries or areas. There are some indications that this may in turn affect an already emerging trend of commercial remote sexual abuse of children using live streaming, especially when combined with offenders’ reduced ability to travel. There is also the concern that a spike in child abuse by travelling sex offenders will follow the lifting of travel restrictions.