THE EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE
OF THE POLICE
Cryptocurrencies – Often connected to other types of crime
According to finance coalitions across the world, cryptocurrencies pose a current and future threat to victim identification efforts and investigations into child sexual abuse crime. With this in mind we focused some of our research into how police officers view the phenomenon of cryptocurrencies in their investigations today.
Relatively rare to see cryptocurrencies
Slightly more than two thirds of the surveyed police officers report that they have not worked on investigations where cryptocurrencies have been a factor. Some report however that the use of cryptocurrencies can be very hard to detect.
“We have not seen this in a case in our lab, though we have been made aware of the potential for the use of cryptocurrencies in obtaining contraband images.”
“It’s extremely hard to track or even discover in the first place.”
Others report that cryptocurrencies are not used frequently because offenders tend to pay each other by swapping child sexual abuse material.
“Most child sexual offenders in my sphere of work go by the mantra that “don’t pay for child sexual abuse material”.”
“[…] Crypto’s are too valuable to trade for media files. User’s prefer to trade indecent images of children in return for indecent images of children.”
Where police officers have worked on investigations where they encountered cryptocurrencies, more than half report that it is uncommon or very uncommon for cryptocurrencies to be used. Only one fifth report that it is common or very common.
Often connected to other types of crimes
The same cohort report that the use of cryptocurrencies is most prevalent in live-streaming investigations, while others report that they mainly see the use of cryptocurrencies in other types of crimes.
“Seen in “live-streaming” cases.”
“The typical consumer of child sexual abuse material […] has neither the knowledge or resources to dabble in cryptocurrencies. Some do, though, and the child sexual abuse cases that I have seen involving this almost always started as drug cases.”
”Our cryptocurrencies cases are generally related to other crime areas, predominantly fraud and extortion.”
Percentage of investigations where cryptocurrencies feature:
Prevalence of cryptocurrencies in the investigations:
Bitcoin most common
According to the surveyed police officers, Bitcoin is the most commonly used cryptocurrency. However Etherium, Monero, Dash Litecoin, Electroneum and Ripple are also mentioned.
A challenge to trace
According to those police officers who have come across cryptocurrencies, more than 60 percent report that the biggest challenge is to trace both the cryptocurrency and the offender. In addition, some police officers report that the investigations are more difficult because of their “international’ reach. Some also report that there is a need for more training on this issue.
“Being able to follow up on the exchange and identify the people behind the trades, especially in dealing with other countries and the lack of support when serving legal paperwork.”
“Difficulty tracking and difficulty with internal education to make investigators more aware of what to look for. Most digital forensics experts have a good knowledge of the subject but the main investigator might not know what to ask for or what possibilities there are.”
A few of the surveyed police officers also report that even if cryptocurrencies are prevalent, they are in themselves not a major challenge to the investigative work.
“The issue still comes down to whether the images exist and are in the possession of the suspect, the use of such currencies is potentially an aggravating factor but not necessary to prove the offence. Clearly the biggest problem is identifying the internet account used in the first place.”
Comment to insight 4:
“We see limited use of cryptocurrencies as payment
for child sexual abuse material”
Senior Advisor, ECPAT Sverige
We see limited use of cryptocurrencies as payment for child sexual abuse material
In our experience it is extremely rare that child sexual abuse material is sold on the internet. Offenders either search for the readily available free material, or they trade images and films with each other. This is facilitated by big or small international online networks where offenders can discuss child sexual abuse and share material that they have produced. These spaces are also used to exchange tips, experiences and information about security issues.
Fake pages are common
With that said, we sometimes encounter what looks like ecommerce pages, or pages that seem to be commercial pages, but they are almost always a scam. Anyone who hands over their name and credit card details in order to buy child sexual abuse would be the perfect victim of a crime.
We have also seen pages on TOR that seem to be selling child sexual abuse material. The prices are given in Bitcoin, but as a rule there is no payment button. In order to pay, the offender has to email a ProtonMail address to get instructions for payment.
Payments using Bitcoin
One example is a page on TOR that purports to sell access to live-streamed child sexual abuse. The page used to advertise recurring events where they charged one Bitcoin to view and ten Bitcoin to direct the abuse. The value of one Bitcoin at that time was the equivalent of 7,000 – 8,000 SEK (ca. €650-770 or $US770-880 today, which is hugely more expensive than the couple of hundred kronor that Swedish offenders have been known to pay for live-streamed abuse from the Philippines).
It is possible that this site, along with other similar pages on TOR is fake and that those who pay don’t get anything in return. These types of pages do however contain some of the most brutal child sexual abuse material that we have seen, posted with the purpose to “advertise” the content and to convince visitors that the site is real.
We have not seen cryptocurrencies in live-streaming cases
We have seen the use of internet based payment services connected to websites that sell web-cam shows as a means to pay for live-streamed child sexual abuse. However we have not seen request for cryptocurrencies there. I believe we have a problem on our hands if cryptocurrencies are being used, as reported by some of the police officers in this report. Crime that has been facilitated by cryptocurrencies is very difficult to investigate and these crimes cause a great deal of suffering to child victims.
If we look to the future, new cryptocurrencies that come with increased security features could pose big challenges. However, there are so few users of this type of currency that the risks are relatively low. Producers of child sexual abuse material would find that their customer base would be too small if they insisted on using a niche cryptocurrency.
ECPAT Sweden is an NGO that works to combat all forms of child sexual exploitation. ECPAT Sweden is part of an international network of organisations based in more than 90 countries.