THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
The COVID-19 pandemic is, at the point of writing, an ongoing pandemic, which has deeply affected the entire world. First identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, it was declared a pandemic in March 2020. In November 2020 more than 54 million cases had been confirmed, with more than 1.3 million deaths attributed to COVID-19. The pandemic deeply affected the world in 2020, and will continue to do so into 2021.
In a statement in October 2020, the WHO stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an ‘unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work. The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating: tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty, while the number of undernourished people, currently estimated at nearly 690 million, could increase by up to 132 million by the end of the year. Millions of enterprises face an existential threat. Nearly half of the world’s 3.3 billion global workforce are at risk of losing their livelihoods’.
Responses from governments across the world have varied, but have included longer or shorter periods of national or regional containment measures such as quarantines, curfews and lockdowns. In April, more than half of the world’s population were under some form of lockdown. Travel and free movement across the world was affected and sometimes restricted. The pandemic also affected the educational systems globally, with a large number of governments closing schools for longer or shorter periods of time, turning to online education.
The Swedish Government’s response to the pandemic differed from most other European countries in that Sweden mostly remained open during 2020. Although recommendations for social distancing and no travel was strongly adviced, there were no lockdowns and schools for children up to the age of fifteen remained open.
COVID-19 and child sexual abuse crime
Early on there was concern that the fallout from the pandemic, with its social restrictions and lockdowns, would affect child sexual abuse (CSA) crime in a number of ways. Speaking to the law enforcement community we saw signs that law enforcement capacity to investigate CSA crimes might also have been affected.
A summary of some of the reports and warnings is included under the heading ‘COVID-19 – Published reports on impact on child sexual abuse crime’.
COVID-19 – PUBLISHED REPORTS ON IMPACTS
ON CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE CRIME
Throughout the year several reports have been published on the increased risk of child sexual exploitation due to circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a short overview of some of the reports and warnings.
The first warnings were published as early as March, by the FBI, IWF and Unicef, to name a few, when countries started to impose restrictions, and schools and workplaces were shut down. At this point concerns were voiced that isolation and homeschooling would increase the time that children spent on the internet, and lead to an increased risk of grooming, as well as sexual coercion and extortion.
Offenders exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic online
They have also reported an increase in activity and sharing of material on the darknet, and that conversations about how to exploit the fallout of the pandemic have surfaced on dedicated child sexual exploitation boards. More time online has allowed perpetrators to build new forums and to continue developing organised business models for sharing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online.
There are predictions that live-streaming will increase as a consequence of travel restrictions, moving travelling sex offenders online.
More unsupervised time online
A frequent concern in many of the reports and articles that have been published this year, is the increased risk of sexual exploitation when children are made to stay at home from both schools and social activities. With this comes more time spent on the internet, often unsupervised, and often from an earlier age.
Another concern that has been brought forward by, amongst others, INTERPOL and NSPCC is that in periods of lockdown, children are removed from a safety net of teachers, coaches and other adults who are able to help them by noticing and reporting suspicions of abuse.
EXPLOITING ISOLATION: OFFENDERS AND VICTIMS OF ONLINE CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Some of the key findings:
• Significant increases in activity relating to CSA on both the
surface web and dark web during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
• Increased number of reports from the public to law enforcement
or other institutions.
• Increased activity on peer-to-peer networks.
• Travel restrictions have shifted travelling sex offenders
to sharing CSAM online.
• Consistent levels of activity by offenders on the dark web during lockdown reflects the ongoing organised business model that
Released June 2020
THREATS AND TRENDS CHILD SEXUAL EXPLOITATION AND ABUSE – COVID-19 IMPACT
Some of the key findings:
• A reduction or delay in reporting of CSA offences as normal
reporting channels are affected.
• A reduction in the use of the INTERPOL ICSE database by member countries.
• Delays or closures in courts leading to delays in processing cases.
• An increase in online CSA activity on both the darknet and open
web, but there is no information at this stage to indicate an
increase in new CSAM in circulation.
• A significant increase in the sharing of CSAM through
the use of peer-to-peer networks.
• An increase in self-generated material distributed on the open web.