A European strategy to fight child sexual abuse

Catherine De Bolle explains why, given the surge in the online distribution of explicit material during lockdown, she is convinced that a coordinated European strategy is the best way to combat child sexual abuse.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock

By Catherine De Bolle

Catherine De Bolle is the Executive Director of Europol

22 Jul 2020

The Coronavirus crisis has brought out the best as well as, unfortunately, the worst in humanity. From the beginning of the pandemic, we at Europol have been monitoring its impact on the serious and organised crime landscape.

Not surprisingly, cybercrime is on the rise. Online fraudsters and criminals trading in counterfeit goods, particularly counterfeit pharmaceutical and healthcare products, have been quick to exploit the pandemic.

However, cybercrime also includes online child sexual abuse, for me one of the most terrible crimes. During the pandemic, different measures have been introduced to prevent the spread of the virus, including social distancing and working and learning from home.

Our children have experienced confinement at home, bringing challenges to their online and offline safety. As both children and offenders have spent more time on the internet due to the lockdowns, the threat stemming from online child sexual abuse has increased.

“Unfortunately the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ warning from our childhood, does not work in the online world. Child abusers visit chat rooms and come disguised as children or teenagers”

I have seen many heinous crimes in my law enforcement career, but it has been shocking to see that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in such a surge in online distribution of child sexual abuse material, which was already at high levels prior to the pandemic.

Referrals from industry and partner countries outside the EU have reached record highs in recent months, particularly in relation to material on the surface web and in peer-to-peer networks. Activities on dark web forums have also increased, including high levels of posts and responses.

Data on the number of referrals from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the US are an indicator of the amount of child sexual abuse material distributed on the surface web. The analysis conducted by Europol on such data shows that the number of referrals began to rise in early March 2020, around the same time the first EU Member States enforced their respective lockdowns.

Referrals in April 2020 were still considerably higher than usual, however, by May 2020 the situation seemed to have nearly returned to that prior to the crisis.

The e­ffect on victims of the circulation and re-circulation of sexual abuse material is exacerbated by the surge in the distribution of this material. One international survey found that 70 percent of survivors of child sexual abuse worry about being recognised publicly because of such exposure.

One dark web site used for the distribution of child sexual abuse material has shown increasing levels of activity, including high levels of posting and responses relating to the topics of the sexual abuse of male children and comments on particular images and videos made available in posts. It is important to note that the activity across dark web sites varies on a regular basis, depending on their popularity, availability and a range of other factors.

The monitoring of these sites by our dark web team verified that there was an increase in activity from March to May 2020 on the same dark web site, particularly in relation to posts about videos captured through webcams.

These videos range from children who are being forced or coerced by an offender into producing abuse material, to videos of a sexual nature produced by children for peers or for social media attention, and also videos being captured without their knowledge.

Overall, the total number of fi les made available by offenders to one another across several prominent dark web forums increased significantly during March to May. Preventing and combatting child sexual abuse is one of my priorities.

Unfortunately, the “don’t talk to strangers” warning from our childhood does not work in the online world. Child abusers visit chat rooms and come disguised as children or teenagers. Moreover, abusers exchange photos and videos across countries and continents.

Europol is one of the strongest tools we have to combat international crime. Created as the supranational hub for sharing criminal intelligence, we host the European Cybercrime Centre - a key player in the fight against child sexual abuse.

“I have seen many heinous crimes in my law enforcement career, but it has been shocking to see that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in such a surge in online distribution of child sexual abuse material”

Our role is to coordinate and support EU Member States’ investigations against those who abuse children, encourage and enable that abuse, or make abuse material available through online platforms.

During the pandemic, we have not only been monitoring the impact of the crisis on online child sexual exploitation, but we have also used intelligence products to inform our law enforcement partners about suspects’ activities and behaviour, and to identify both offenders and victims.

We also work with partners to organise prevention and awareness-raising campaigns that highlight the risks to children’s safety online such as our #SayNo! campaign or the #DontBeAnEasyCatch campaign by our partner AmberAlert.

Europol has paid particular attention to the Trace an Object initiative, which follows up on leads submitted by the public and processes new objects for this campaign.

Fighting child sexual exploitation is a joint effort between law enforcement, EU Member States, non-governmental organisations, international organisations and the private sector.

I was therefore very pleased that European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson announced a package of measures to better combat child sex abuse - a European strategy to fight child sexual abuse.

I am convinced that such a strategy is the right way forward as increased cooperation is needed to coordinate efforts to protect our children online.