At least one Canadian is among hundreds of people with suspected involvement in an international pedophile ring that allegedly live-streamed child sexual abuse from the Philippines.
Authorities in Canada say three Canadians are being investigated in connection with the case. None have been arrested.
Britain's National Crime Agency said Thursday that a joint investigation with authorities in the United States and Australia broke up the ring, resulting in 29 arrests of people in 12 countries who had paid to watch the abuse.
The probe, which began in 2012, has resulted in 15 children aged between six and 15 being rescued. The agency says three other separate investigations are ongoing into the live-streaming of child sexual abuse, which an official said is a "significant and emerging threat," particularly in developing countries.
"This investigation has identified some extremely dangerous child sexual offenders who believed paying for children to be abused to order was something they could get away with," said Andy Baker, the deputy director of the agency's command for child protection. "Being thousands of miles away makes no difference to their guilt. In my mind they are just as responsible for the abuse of these children as the contact abusers overseas."
The investigation began after a routine visit to Timothy Ford, a registered sex offender in Britain. Police found a number of indecent videos on his computer and contacted child abuse investigators, touching off a global investigation beginning in 2012.
733 suspects ID'd, some convictions
U.K. authorities worked with the Australian Federal Police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers as well as the International Justice Mission, a non-governmental group. Together, the agencies presented their data to authorities in the Philippines to identify offenders and victims.
"Police have identified no less than 733 suspects from many different countries, including Canada, France, Britain, the United States, Sweden," CBC reporter Carole MacNeil said from London.
The investigation — code-named Operation Endeavour — has resulted in some convictions, including Ford's, who was sentenced in March to 8½ years in prison. The agency said Ford paid to watch the live abuse and had planned to move to the Philippines to set up an internet café.
Another customer, Thomas Owen, who was sentenced in July to seven years in prison, had discussed travelling to the Philippines with Ford. Ford, who uses a wheelchair, "suggested that Owen could act as his [caregiver] so they could travel to the Philippines together in an attempt to avoid detection," police said.
Owen, who was found with nearly four million indecent images of children, was sentenced in July to seven years in prison.
Stephanie McCourt, of the U.K.'s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is now part of the NCA, told the BBC that pedophiles should know the internet is not a "safe place for them."
"They must also not be under the mistaken impression that this is a crime which carries no guilt because it happens on the other side of the world," she said. "It is just as bad, just as harmful as though it was happening to the children right here in the U.K."
Impoverished communities a target
The arrests underscored the well-established problem of cybercrime rings victimizing children in impoverished areas.
Community support to eradicate the problem is crucial because the crime often is concealed in the privacy of homes away from the attention of authorities, said Mayor Michael Rama of Cebu City in the central Philippines, a region where some of the abuses have been reported.
"When you have some poverty, the availability of information and technology and the attraction for easy money, these abuses happen," Rama told The Associated Press by telephone. "City hall can fight this, but if the villages don't get involved, what's going to happen?"
Philippine police Senior Supt. Gilbert Sosa, who heads an anti-cybercrime unit, said incidents of abuse have been monitored in Cebu, Manila and Angeles City north of the capital.
Impoverished parents allow their children to be sexually abused and watched by paying foreigners via the internet in exchange for $100 to $200, Sosa said.
"We're continuing with our operations," Sosa said. "We've not eradicated this."