Kitchener-Waterloo

Police in Waterloo region fighting 'global epidemic' of online child abuse

Police in Waterloo region who investigate online child abuse are dealing with a "significant increase" in online imagery involving younger children and more severe violence than ever before, according to a 20-year veteran of the service.
Police in Waterloo region who investigate online child abuse are dealing with a "significant increase" in online imagery involving younger children and more severe violence than ever before, according to a 20-year veteran of the police force. (271 EAK MOTO/Shutterstock)

Police in Waterloo region are investigating a growing amount of online child sex abuse material that is both more violent and involves younger children, according to a 22-year veteran of the service.

"It's just expanded," said Det. Const. Sandor Illes, who works with the Waterloo Regional Police Service's cyber crime unit.

Online child sex abuse material is considered the preferred term to child pornography, because "pornography" takes the perspective of the offender and implies some level of consent, he said.

Although abuse material is also being circulated on the open Internet, Illes said he believes the growing presence of dark web forums has made the problem worse.

"When people believe that they are in a in a state of anonymity on the Internet … and believe they can be open and share this material, it's taken to a different level," Illes said.

Part of 'global epidemic'

The work of Waterloo regional police mirrors trends happening both national and internationally, according to Stephen Sauer, who directs Cybertip.ca, an online tipline run by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

The site both responds to tips from the public and seeks out online materials through a tool called Project Arachnid. The tool crawls the Internet for images of child abuse and issues takedown notices to hosting providers. 

In 2018, Sauer said his team processed more reports of online abusive imagery than in the previous 15 years combined, in part due to their newfound ability to automatically detect images of suspected child abuse. In less than three years, Project Arachnid has issued close to five million takedown notices to content providers across the globe.

"We see child sexual abuse material as a global epidemic," Sauer said. "You can pretty much find it anywhere."

Police in Waterloo region investigate cases involving either victims or suspects who are local to the region, but the lack of boundaries online means officers often have to work with police in other countries.

Illes says last summer, police were contacted by officers in the United Kingdom about a local man who was trying to "procure children online."

The man was arrested and charged with one count of luring a child and one count of arrangement to commit a sexual offence against a child. He was sentenced to 18 months in custody.

Police in Waterloo region are investigating a growing amount of online child sex abuse material that is both more violent and involves younger children, according to a 22-year veteran of the service. We hear from Det. Const. Sandor Illes, as well as a director with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. 7:00

Industry sluggish to respond

Although it takes only seconds for photos and videos to be uploaded online, taking them down is more difficult.

For police, investigating online child abuse often means asking online companies and Internet service providers in other jurisdictions to hand over information, which "certainly lengthens the investigative process," Illes said.

Sauer said his team has it no easier. A recent report on Project Arachnid found the best 10 per cent of industry companies will take down child abuse materials in one day or less after being notified, while the bottom 10 per cent take more than two weeks.

In about half of cases, Sauer said it takes more than three days for material to be removed.  

"To send a notice, to have that provider review that notice and then actually take action on it is quite significant," said Sauer.

Illes said he thinks things are getting better and that a recent American law called the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act — or "Cloud Act" — will make it easier for Canada to access data from the U.S.

As for Sauer, he said industry needs to step up and take greater responsibility in immediately removing online child abuse material. A new framework released by the centre this month also calls for the removal of all images tied to the sexual abuse of a child, including photos taken before and after abuse has happened.

"[Industry needs] to detect the material on their networks and make sure that they have appropriate policies and procedures to get this removed as quickly as possible," Sauer said.

Although Illes declined to say how many officers within WRPS are dedicated to investigating online child abuse, Sauer said that many municipal police services in Canada are understaffed relative to the amount of material they're faced with.

In many cases, he said more resources are needed.

"Right now they're drowning in what's being reported to them and it's really tough for them to get out ahead of that," he said.

Message to parents

Illes said parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing online and what apps they're using. Although technology can be intimidating, he said talking to kids about what they're doing and how it works can be the best way of keeping kids safe.

"That communication is probably the best protection for a child online," he said.

An analyst examines reports of sexual exploitation of children received on cybertip.ca. The analysts work in a the locked room at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (CBC)