In Depth


Child safety

Perils and progress in fight against online child abuse

February 12, 2007

When the internet exploded into the public consciousness in the mid-1990s, it was often referred to as a great leveller, a kind of digital library or virtual public square that gave people of all ages access to information and each other in a kind of utopian forum unsullied by commercial or more unsavoury interests.

The metaphors were largely apt. At the time, the internet was chiefly populated by academics, students and government workers and a collegial atmosphere and interest pervaded the ever-growing community of "netizens."

But it wasn't long before the less benign elements of society crept in, skulking about the library and trolling the commons for open, curious young minds to exploit and abuse. The criminal element was held at bay at first by the limited access children had to the internet by virtue of the fact that relatively few people had home computers and fewer still had a connection.

But as demonstrated by the announcement on Feb. 7, 2007, that Austrian police had uncovered a child pornography ring of nearly 2,400 people spanning 77 countries, the problem of online sexual predators, child abusers and those who trade in images of such activities for pleasure or profit affects almost every corner of the world with an internet connection.

Children unaware of online risks

The ability of sexual predators to reach children in their homes goes far beyond an idle fear given that about 83 per cent of homes in Canada have at least one computer and a third have at least two, according to data collected by Solutions Research Group.

The pervasive presence of computers and children's access to them is cause for genuine concern when the results of a recent Ipsos-Reid survey commissioned by Microsoft Canada are taken into account.

The survey of Canadians from ages 10 to 14 who have home internet access found that:

  • 70 per cent think information they post online and e-mail to friends is private.
  • 37 per cent of girls and 22 per cent of boys have e-mailed their photo to someone.
  • 25 per cent would feel comfortable meeting in person with someone they have only communicated with online.

Even more disturbing:

  • 11 per cent have been asked by a stranger online for personal information such as their names, addresses or phone numbers.
  • One in 10 don't know all of the people on their instant-messaging buddy lists.

Paul Gillespie, an internet safety consultant who cut his teeth in the field as the head of the Toronto Police Service's child exploitation unit, said the statistics are worth heeding.

But he also highlighted positive aspects of the study, including the finding that 96 per cent of the parents or guardians whose children participated in the survey said they had talked to their kids about potential dangers online.

"The good part about the poll is that parents are doing what we're asking them to," said Gillespie, who is now the vice-chair of the non-profit Kids' Internet Safety Alliance (KINSA).

"They're putting the computer in a common area where they can watch what their children are doing and they're having conversations with them."

Communication critical

But modern youth culture poses unique problems since it runs opposite to the lessons adults are trying to teach them, Gillespie told CBC News Online.

Previous generations of children used to socialize at physical locations but now their hangouts are online at social networking sites like MySpace, making it much more difficult to monitor both their activities and, more importantly, who has access to them, said Gillespie.

"With the advent of social networking sites like MySpace … what we're telling kids they shouldn't do doesn't fit with the way they socialize. It runs totally contradictory to us telling them not to post personal information online"

Turning off the computer is not a viable way to ward off risk when one considers that 85 per cent of children in Canada who have internet access at home also have access outside the home, Gillespie pointed out.

Instead, he recommends that parents negotiate a middle ground that lets children communicate and socialize with their friends online while still keeping them safe.

Youth afraid to report incidents

Det. Const. Warren Bulmer, who has worked in Toronto's child exploitation unit for three years, said Gillespie's approach is the right one to take.

"I think a lot of incidents that occur to kids go unreported," Bulmer told CBC News Online.

The reason? "Kids haven't reported for fear of getting their internet [access] taken away," he said.

U.S. statistics appear to support Bulmer's assertion. In the United States, one in seven children from 10 and 17years old — more than 14 per cent — have been sexually solicited online, according to that country's National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The organization says only 27 per cent of children who receive unwanted sexual material online — including sexually explicit photos, videos or an invitation to meet someone in person — would report it to a parent or guardian.

Bulmer said parents need to take an educational approach, letting their children know there are people out there who may try to exploit them. The children should also be told that if they are approached, they shouldn't be surprised or afraid to report it, but should instead immediately let their parents know.

"If we don't know about it, we can't do anything about it," Bulmer said.

Online crimes pose extra challenges for investigators

Lack of knowledge is often the biggest hurdle when police investigate child exploitation cases online compared to a physical crime scene, Bulmer said.

"A lot of the time when a crime is committed, we know where it is, who the victim is and can gather physical evidence," Bulmer said. "Now we have to find the perpetrator."

But with an online crime like child exploitation and abuse, the path to solving the crime can be much murkier.

In cases like the porn ring exposed by the Austrian authorities on Feb. 7, investigators were able to find people trading in the illicit materials through a website that officials allege was selling videos of children being abused.

But in most cases, a photo or video of a child being sexually exploited or abused is the only evidence police have that a crime has occurred, Bulmer said. They then have to not only figure out who committed the crime, but also who the victim is and when and where the crime occurred.

The investigation often starts when police come across the illegal imagery on websites or computers seized from people who exchange the offending content online. But then they must try to trace the scant evidence back to the source through ephemeral data that flits across the internet or resides on the originating computer.

Shift toward younger victims, babies

These variables can add to investigators' frustration and burden in the face of another trend that Bulmer has noticed: the ages of those who are being abused and exploited are falling from pre-teens and early adolescents to "much younger" children.

"Some of the images and videos I see now depict younger children than I would have seen previously in the last three years," Bulmer said. "I'm seeing a lot of material involving sexual abuse of a baby."

Another major shift he has observed is an increase in the use of video.

"Some offenders have taken to purchasing video cameras and I'm now seeing widespread distribution of videos and movie clips," Bulmer said. "The majority of offenders would have a lot of video along with digital images on the computers we seize."

Although the actual content of the videos may not be anything new, its effect on investigators and victims is far more profound by virtue of its immediacy, he said.

"It's like you're watching it live. It's more real, vivid, you're hearing the victims screaming," he said.

'Amazingly scary escalation' in crimes

The shift to younger victims has also been noted by Drew Oosterbaan, the chief of the child exploitation and obscenity section of the U.S. Department of Justice.

There has been an "amazingly scary escalation" in the material his group has seen over the past decade, Oosterbaan said while speaking on a discussion panel about youth and the internet at the RSA security conference held Feb. 5-9 in San Francisco.

A decade ago, the images of abuse and exploitation his investigators encountered were generally of children no younger than 13 years old, Oosterbaan said.

"Now there is horrific, torturous sexual abuse involving babies and toddlers," he said, according to CNet News.

Bulmer suggested there needs to be a shift in terminology in order to help the public understand how serious the crimes are.

"We call it 'child pornography' but pornography is consensual between adults and is produced for profit," he said.

"What we're talking about, there's nothing consensual about this. This is child abuse, straight on … and that's what it should be called."

Jump in exposure to explicit material

Children who use the internet are also increasingly being exposed to sexual material, studies suggest.

About four in 10 children from 10 to 17 years in age — 42 per cent — have been exposed online to images of naked people or depictions of people engaged in sexual activity, according to a 2005 study by the University of New Hampshire published in the February 2007 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

That's a big jump from 1999, when the researchers conducted a similar study and found that only 25 per cent among the same age group said they had encountered sexually explicit content online.

About 66 per cent of the children who saw such material — or 34 per cent of all of the children surveyed — said the exposure to sexual materials was unwanted.

Most of the unwanted sexual content was extremely graphic, involving people engaged in "sexual acts or sexual deviance or violence," the researchers found.

In one bright spot, the more recent study found that young people were receiving fewer unwanted sexual solicitations online — about one in seven participants reported such advances compared to around one in five in 1999.

Webcams risky, police warn

Children are also being lured into participating in activities online that they could later regret through devices such as webcams, said Bulmer of the Toronto Police Service's child exploitation unit.

He warns parents about the tiny video cameras for personal are increasingly built into many PCs and can also be purchased separately.

"There's no reason for a child to have webcams," Bulmer said.

He said children who use the cameras while chatting are sometimes convinced to expose themselves to people watching across the internet and don't realize someone may be recording the video stream.

"As soon as they put their face or any part of their body on a webcam, they have to understand someone is recording it," Bulmer said.

"What you get is a situation where someone got them to do something [on the webcam] that they wouldn't have done and now they've lost control of that."

There's no reason children can't chat on an instant messenger program as long as they know everyone on their buddy list and safeguard their personal information, he added.

Progress being made

Gillespie said he left the Toronto Police Service in June 2006 after two decades on the force because after being with the child exploitation unit for 5½ years, he realized he couldn't look at another image of abuse.

But he said that despite that — and despite the alarming trends — progress is being made in the fight against the sexual exploitation and abuse of children online — especially in Canada.

"I'm sick of always talking about the downside," Gillespie said, noting that the successes are not often discussed or celebrated. "We've come a long way."

However, he said that Canadian law enforcement agencies are recognized and respected around the world for their leading work in the fight against online child exploitation and abuse.

Another improvement is that there is now widespread recognition among parents, educators and officials in government and law enforcement that the problem needs to be addressed.

Bulmer concurred, saying that when he joined the child exploitation unit three years ago, he had to go to the United States for training. Now such training is offered at the police college in Ottawa.

"I am optimistic," Gillespie said, pointing to websites like that help children and parents stay safe online.

"I think we have hit people over the head and can focus on the great parts of the internet we're not paying attention to."

(Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window)

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