Lessons From Lockdown: Protecting Children From Livestreamed Sexual Exploitation In A Post-Pandemic World

John Tanagho

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably changed the relationship between societies and the digital world. During this period, we’ve spent more time online: working, socializing, shopping – and, for many, sexually abusing children. As countries emerged from lockdown, it became increasingly clear that digital spaces and internet-connected devices posed growing opportunities for offenders to abuse and exploit children with ease, anonymity, and impunity. In 2021, the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received nearly 85 million images, videos, and other files containing or related to child sexual abuse and exploitation and other incident-related content – and those are only what were detected and reported.1

Governments and legislators now face one of the defining questions of our times: how far, and in what manner, to regulate the online safety policies and practices of tech platforms dominating these digital spaces (e.g., the UK through its Online Safety Bill, the EU through its Digital Services Act, the US through the EARN IT Act, Australia’s Online Safety Act, Basic Online Safety Expectations, and industry codes, etc).

One brutal, and growing, form of online harm is online sexual exploitation of children, which according to WeProtect Global Alliance (an international coalition of governments, private businesses and civil society organizations) is an increasing threat ‘outstripping our global capacity to respond’.’2 Europol has described online sexual exploitation of children as ‘a constantly evolving phenomenon, shaped by developments in technology.’

New online spaces like the metaverse may raise additional concerns by mixing children with adult strangers in a virtual world.

In my time leading International Justice Mission (IJM) teams in the Philippines, I have seen firsthand the harm caused when children are sexually abused real-time in video calls, at the request of sex offenders in Western countries. These offenders pay traffickers, who 65% of the time are family members or friends of the victim, to sexually abuse children in person. Often the livestreamed abuse is recorded to create enduring photos and videos, further fueling the explosion in child sexual and abuse material (CSAM) online (as documented by Internet Watch Foundation, among others). Many child victims are left with serious emotional and physical trauma, often complex,3 and some suffer for many years before being found and brought to safety. In the Philippines and elsewhere, this type of online sexual exploitation is prosecuted as a form of human trafficking as individuals sexually exploit children for profit by producing new CSAM, including via livestreams.Even before the pandemic, the market for new child abuse materials, including livestreams, was growing. This is because of its ready availability via mainstream tech platforms – including video-chat apps – minimal-to-no platform resistance, as well as its shockingly low cost. The Australian Institute of Criminology found a median of A$51 being paid by sex offenders, equivalent of just over £27, per abusive livestream.  Increased connectivity and the low cost of streaming devices also contribute to the ease with which this global crime is committed.

The pandemic has inarguably exacerbated conditions, further fueling online child sexual abuse and exploitation. Livestreaming has seen a particular boom in popularity, with Europol warning that “livestreaming of child sexual abuse increased and became even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.” There are now between 550,000 and 850,000 people in the UK alone who pose sexual risks to children, according to the National Crime Agency (UK), and ‘the scale of this threat continues to grow, exacerbated by rising online activity.’4 Given that the UK is the third largest consumer of livestreamed abuse5, this gives some indication of the scale of demand.

This is a global crime with demand-side offenders in many countries, including countries looking to regulate online behavior.  A 2020 study into the nature and scale of this abuse in the Philippines showed that 34% of demand-side offenders are US-based. This study was led by IJM, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP Office), the Government of the Philippines and many other stakeholders, under the U.S.–Philippines Child Protection Compact (CPC) Partnership.

Whether the demand-side offender is British, American, Australian, or European, the harm to children is equally stark: behind every livestream is a real child, suffering real trauma — often for years on end while the livestreamed abuse goes undetected and unreported. In my seven years working in the Philippines, the identified global hotspot for financially-motivated livestreamed exploitation6, I have heard from survivors of this abuse, who recount its devastating impact. Ruby*, who was trafficked aged fifteen, recalls how the abuse eroded her will to live: “While doing every disgusting show [in front of the computer camera with the customer], I lost every bit of my self-esteem to the point where I felt disgusted with myself as well. It’s like being trapped in a dark room without any rays of light at all. There’s no point in living at all.”

As part of a comprehensive partnership, IJM supported Philippine authorities to bring Ruby to safety, and we have seen nearly 900 children and others at-risk brought to safety through working with law enforcement and justice system officials to investigate instances of child online sexual exploitation, provide support in operations, and help hold perpetrators accountable in court. Justice system capacity to address these crimes in the Philippines is undoubtedly stronger than before and continues to grow through non-governmental organizations (NGO) and international partnerships.

However, protecting children from this crime will require coordinated global efforts not only from NGOs, but also between governments, the tech and financial sectors, and law enforcement. It’s critical that tech and financial sector companies better understand the scale of harm occurring on or via their platforms, which is why part of the remit of IJM’s Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children is to collaborate with industry on improved detection, disruption and reporting of these crimes.

Given the importance of cross-border collaboration, IJM also works closely with other members of the Philippines Internet Crimes Against Children Center (PICACC), a global body facilitating international law enforcement collaboration on this issue, comprising the Philippine police and investigative units; UK National Crime Agency; Australian Federal Police, Dutch National Police, and IJM.

As the world emerges from lockdown, what can governments do to reduce the surge in livestreamed exploitation, ensuring that children like Ruby are protected from abuse?  One issue of crucial importance for governments currently seeking to legislate on online safety is the introduction of requirements or standards for tech platforms to detect the creation of first-generation or newly-made child abuse materials, including via livestreaming7.

Currently, the full scale of online sexual exploitation is unknown, even though it happens across mainstream social media sites many use every day. While the tools to detect both known and new child sexual abuse in images and videos exist, implementation of online safety rules, tools, and systems is uneven across companies, with no established standards or action.  Case in point: a 2021 tech sector survey revealed that despite evidence indicating increases in video and livestreamed child sexual abuse, advanced detection of such material is only used by 30% and 22% of respondents respectively.8 All companies should certainly be using the best available technology to combat CSAM by identifying, removing, and reporting abusive images.9

Companies should also consider moving increasingly from a reactive approach of detecting and removing CSAM already online to detecting and blocking CSAM from distribution or livestreaming in the first instance through sophisticated on-device (“client-side”) emerging technologies. These technologies can, and should, be privacy protective. We need industry-wide change so offenders have nowhere to hide and nowhere online to abuse children with impunity.

Crucially, improved detection, disruption and reporting will translate to improved child protection outcomes.  The opposite is true.  In 2020 IJM found that victims in the Philippines safeguarded by authorities had suffered abuse for two years on average before being protected – illustrating that the real cost of delayed or deferred detection is more abuse.

Without new measures to improve detection, disruption and reporting, this crime will continue to outpace law enforcement and children will continue to suffer. In considering how best to regulate digital spaces in a post-pandemic world, it is essential that governments listen directly to survivor leaders like Ruby, who are speaking out about the issue, and place them at the center of conversations about solutions. In doing so, we will be able to build back from the pandemic in a way that makes our world safer for children and take a significant step towards a digital landscape that gives no opportunity for exploitation (as currently exists, for example, on platforms where end-to-end encryption has been implemented without first deploying advanced child protection solutions or on livestreaming services with zero technological barriers to offending).

Additionally, Western countries that create the demand for this abuse should strengthen accountability of offenders who pay for and direct the abuse. In a report released October 2020, IJM found that convicted offenders in the UK spent an average of just two years and four months in prison, a sentence which is disproportionately lenient when compared to those convicted of ‘in-person’ abuse.10 WeProtect Global Alliance warned similar trends are apparent across the world.11 Without appropriate accountability, sex offenders will continue to act with impunity, leaving survivors empty-handed in their search for justice.

For their part, international money remittance agencies and correspondent banks also have a role to play by proactively detecting financial transactions between online perpetrators and traffickers indicative of child sexual abuse material production. Offenders, like this Australian perpetrator, should not be able to transfer $160,000 to abuse children in the Philippines with no one sounding the alarm.  Some within the financial sector are already making commendable progress on this, through initiatives such as the IEWG’s CSAE project.12

To aid in detecting suspicious money transfers, companies can collaborate with law enforcement, financial intelligence units and child protection NGOs to identify and validate relevant indicators. Such resources have already been produced, separately, by IJM and AUSTRAC (Australia’s financial intelligence and regulatory agency) among others. While significant progress has been made in encouraging financial institutions to adopt these detection methods, there is a lack of coordinated effort across the global sector to introduce universal standards of detection across demand and source countries.

IJM has seen the commendable efforts of Philippine law enforcement, prosecutors, and social services towards tackling this issue – but, like COVID-19, this is an issue that cannot be tackled by one nation in isolation. That is why international law enforcement collaboration will continue to be essential, through initiatives like PICACC. Within its first three years of operation, PICACC made possible the rescue of 482 victims from online sexual exploitation and the arrest of 99 offenders. With more widespread global cooperation, imagine how much more could be done.

While lockdowns revealed alarming spikes in reported online sexual exploitation of children cases, the lifting of lockdowns alone is not sufficient to stem the growth of this crime. It will take coordinated global effort between legislators, law enforcement, demand and source-side criminal justice systems, NGOs and the tech and financial sectors. The challenges are complex, but child protection solutions – in the justice, tech, and financial sectors – already exist: it is now a matter of key stakeholders prioritizing broad deployment of comprehensive child protection systems. Lockdowns helped lift the lid on the ease with which offenders abuse children online. Together, we can sweep away this impunity by bolstering a global multi-sectoral response to build barriers to offending and shield children from greater harm.

Additional resources

Brandon Kaopuiki, ‘Why Vulnerable Kids Depend on Government and Big Tech Getting Data Privacy Laws Right’ March 2021.

IJM’s Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation, ‘Apple’s New Child Safety Features: a Positive Step for Child Protection and Privacy’, August 2021.

1 NCMEC, ‘By The Numbers’, 2020 https://www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline

2 WeProtect Global Alliance Global Threat Assessment 2021, p.3 <https://www.weprotect.org/wp-content/plugins/pdfjs-viewer-shortcode/pdfjs/web/viewer.php?file=/wp-content/uploads/Global-Threat-Assessment-2021.pdf&dButton=true&pButton=true&oButton=false&sButton=true#zoom=0&pagemode=none>

3 International Justice Mission, 2020 report: ‘Online Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Philippines: Analysis and Recommendations for Governments, Industry, and Civil Society’ p59. < https://paragonn-cdn3.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/ijmuk.org/documents/FULL-OSEC-REPORT.pdf>.

4 NCA, 2021 National Strategic Assessment, May 2021, p.9-10 <https://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/news/online-is-the-new-frontline-in-fight-against-organised-crime-says-national-crime-agency-on-publication-of-annual-threat-assessment>

5 IICSA ‘Internet Inquiry’ report, March 2020 <https://www.iicsa.org.uk/document/internet-investigation-report-march-2020>

6 International Justice Mission, 2020 report: ‘Online Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Philippines: Analysis and Recommendations for Governments, Industry, and Civil Society’ p60. <https://paragonn-cdn3.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/ijmuk.org/documents/FULL-OSEC-REPORT.pdf>

7 Australia’s Basic Online Safety Expectations require companies to “take reasonable steps” to minimize provision of certain material on their platforms, including “livestreamed child sexual abuse material whether or not the material depicts abuse occurring in Australia.”  BOSE Explanatory Statement.

8 Findings from WeProtect Global Alliance / Technology Coalition survey (Oct. 2021). https://www.weprotect.org/wp-content/plugins/pdfjs-viewer

9 Findings from WeProtect Global Alliance / Technology Coalition survey (Oct. 2021). https://www.weprotect.org/wp-content/plugins/pdfjs-viewer

10 International Justice Mission, 2020 report: ‘Falling Short: Demand-Side Sentencing For Online Sexual Exploitation of Children.’ p8. <https://www.ijmuk.org/documents/IJM-REPORT-FALLING-SHORT-Demand-Side-Sentencing-for-Online-Sexual-Exploitation-of-Children-Composite-Case-Review-Analysis-and-Recommendations-for-the.pdf>

11 See also WeProtect Global Alliance 2021 Global Threat Assessment, p. 5, p.60. <https://www.weprotect.org/wp-content/plugins/pdfjs-viewer-shortcode/pdfjs/web/viewer.php?file=/wp-content/uploads/Global-Threat-Assessment-2021.pdf&dButton=true&pButton=true&oButton=false&sButton=true#zoom=0&pagemode=none>

12 See The IEWG’s project report here: https://egmontgroup.org/en/content/combatting-child-sexual-abuse-and-exploitation-iewg-project-report-now-available