By John Shehan, Vice President, Exploited Children Division, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), USA.
We have seen a big increase in all types of reports that we receive, both cybertips from industry and reports from the public. We always see an annual increase in reports, but this increase is bigger than expected, and I’m convinced that it is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I think offenders see an opportunity with distracted parents and more children online.
Cybertips from industry, such as social media platforms have increased in 2020. In 2019 we received 16.9 million reports, a number that we had surpassed already in September 2020.
Increase in online enticement
Online enticement, when someone is interacting with a child online with the intent to commit a sexual offence (for example grooming or sexually extorting a child), is one of the most pronounced trends. From March to August, the online enticement reports doubled compared to the year before, from 11,658 cases in 2019, to 22,751 in 2020.
On the darknet and TOR there has also been an increase in activity in connection to the COVID-19 pandemic. Offenders are known to have discussed the opportunities that the pandemic offers them.
Reports from the public
The number of reports from the public has also gone up. In 2019, we received 103,000 reports, in 2020, we had already received 199,000 reports by August. I believe that when people stay at home or quarantine for long durations of time, they have more time online, which increases the potential to come across this type of material.
From March to August, the online enticement reports doubled compared to the year before, from 11,658 cases in 2019, to 22,751 in 2020.
Increase in quantity of CSAM
In the beginning of the pandemic, some of the increase was a result of a few files of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) going viral, but without criminal intent. Mobilized groups actively sought and reported images and videos, to try to bring attention to the subject. Some have been sharing images out of outrage for the child, or in attempts to identify the child, not understanding the damage this does to the child and without considering that it is an illegal act.
However, this is only a small proportion of the reports that we have received. There has without a doubt been much more CSAM shared with criminal intent during this period; both the number of individuals sharing CSAM and the quantities of CSAM have gone up.
Capacity to investigate
I know there have been periods of time, especially in those states that have been most severely impacted by COVID-19, where law enforcement in the US has been strained for resources, and resources have had to be reassigned for brief periods of time. I also know judicial processes have sometimes slowed down, which means there is going to be a backlog in investigations and trials going forward.
At NCMEC we have been working remotely during the pandemic. CSAM has to be reviewed in the office, so we have had three teams that rotate doing that. It was a transition when we went from working in the office to working from home, and we had to re-examine our workflows, but it has worked well. In some way this has helped to forward a number of different programs.
We now have better workflows in place to reduce duplications and bulk review reports, assess the possible rescue of a child, assess meta data, etc. We have also been able to increase our database significantly. We’ve more than doubled our hashes of images, and hashes of videos have gone from 20,000 before COVID-19 to 200,000.