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Child sexual abuse networks taken down by law enforcement

On Monday, Europol came out with a press release about a joint police operation. Law enforcement in Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, the USA and Canada successfully brought down one of the largest child sexual abuse platforms on the Darknet called “Boystown”. Four individuals connected to the platform were arrested. The platform had over 400 000 registered users. The operation will lead to further arrests and rescues of children. Child sexual exploitation communities also have strong resilience against enforcement actions. When one forum/site is shut down, new emerges, even the resurrection of old and defunct forums comes to life so expect more law enforcement actions.

Changes due to Covid-19

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the crimes involving child sexual exploitation material (CSAM). The different crimes have gone into overdrive. Streaming platforms for live distant child abuse (LDCA) has steadily increased over the past years but saw a sharp increase in traffic from when lockdowns and travel restrictions went in place. The Philippines is regarded as the main country where the abuse occurs and saw an increase in LCDA due to the lockdown leading to income losses for already low-income families.

The LDCA platforms act as an alternative to hands-on abuse. A perpetrator pays to see live events of abuse by paying parents, child carers and abusers to exploit children remotely. Payments go through the platform inbuilt payment options or directly to the persons behind the camera through a side-channel, i.e. by using a favourite E-wallet with payments instructions given in a chat app.

The live distant abuse crimes also occur within Europe, which was uncovered by a large police operation in Romania in 2020, which identified significant LDCA.

Most of the CSAM material is spread between consumers of CSAM through peer-2-peer networks, and despite their drop in popularity, member states in the EU reported a significant surge in shared material within these groups when the lockdown came into place. The lockdowns have affected the possibility for children to go to school. The increase of children remotely being online, either for spare time or schooling and often unsupervised, has also made them vulnerable for Grooming and unsolicited contacts from adults in online games, social networks, and apps.

A new, worrying trend

However, there is a very worrying trend observed by law enforcement. The commercialisation of child sexual exploitation.  This has previously been connected to live-distant-abuse platforms but has over the past year become more spread. The for-profit model has been identified in the so-called Clear net (the visible internet) and on the Darknet. Perpetrators monetise exploitation material by uploading it to hosting sites and get credits for the number of subsequent downloads. Credits that can be used to purchase more hosting services or also to be cashed out.

You can help

Sexual Exploitation of children are heinous crimes and affect some of the most vulnerable in our societies. It is a consumer-driven market that is now increasingly seeing a profit-driven business model. Here is where we all need to take a stand and help combat and prevent these crimes. There are many ways to do this. One thing you can do instantly is to help Europol. They have launched the site “Trace and Object” where they post pieces of pictures (sanitised) that can lead to the rescue of children – Please spread the link among your networks.

Another thing is to be informed, so you know what to be on the lookout for. The Europol IOCTA has an excellent chapter on the topic as well as their SOCTA. So, grab them for your weekend reading if you have not already. Or head over to ThreatView for our analysis. Also, read our white paper report “Online sexual exploitation of children” .