Covid-19 lockdown creates 'perfect storm' for sexual abuse of children online (2nd of 2 parts)

Cherry Ann Lim
·14 min read

THE coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has forced millions of people worldwide to stay home as governments enforce physical distancing to contain the disease.

First imposed in mid- to late March, the lockdowns have been a bane for workers who cannot go out to work, but a blessing for parents now better able to sleep at night knowing exactly where their children are at any given time. And that is home, safe from the dangers of the outside world.

But not all children have benefited from the lockdown.

The WeProtect Global Alliance, an international movement dedicated to ending the online sexual exploitation of children (Osec), says the dangers have in fact grown for some children.

In an intelligence brief in April, WeProtect said economic hardship and the inability of offenders to travel due to Covid-19 restrictions would force them to migrate online, increasing the potential for the livestreaming abuse of children in home environments.

It cited data from specialist cybersecurity firm Web-IQ showing that between February 2020 and the end of March 2020, there was an over 200 percent increase in posts on child sex abuse forums that link to downloadable images and videos hosted on publicly accessible spaces on the internet.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) also reported a doubling of reports of suspected online child sexual exploitation to 2,027,520 in March 2020 from 983,734 in March 2019.

The NCMEC is the United States’ centralized reporting system where the public and electronic service providers report child exploitation images and videos that appear on their platforms.

Here in the Philippines, Rey Bicol, International Justice Mission (IJM) Manila field office director, described the increased threat to children since the lockdown.

“We can see from the data provided by foreign law enforcement, like the Australian Federal Police, that the crashing of a site where customers exchange child sexual exploitation materials (occurred) because many are accessing it because they are just in their homes,” he said in a webinar on protecting against Osec in May.

READ FIRST PART: Filipino children most appealing to global online sex predators

Ready supply

IJM defines Osec as “the production, for the purpose of online publication or transmission, of visual depictions (e.g., photos, videos, live streaming) of the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor for a third party who is not in the physical presence of the victim, in exchange for compensation.”

“Due to limitations in technology, it is hard to measure the prevalence of Osec, particularly the livestreaming of child sexual abuse. But global law enforcement data strongly indicate a surge of Osec, so it is not far-fetched to assume that this increase is also happening in Cebu,” said Lucille Dejito, IJM Cebu field office director.

“An increase in the incidence of Osec during lockdowns is most likely because of higher demand from child sex offenders abroad with more time on their hands. Children are not going to school now and are confined in their homes, possibly living with their traffickers. Thus, the lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic have created a perfect storm for the abuse of children online,” Dejito said.

The IJM-led study “Online Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Philippines: Analysis and Recommendations for Governments, Industry and Civil Society” shows that in 90 cases of Osec in the Philippines from 2011 to 2017, a whopping 41 percent of the victims’ abuse was facilitated by their parents and 42 percent by other relatives.

Dejito doesn’t think quarantine restrictions have discouraged Osec.

“As for the traffickers’ ability to claim payments due to quarantine restrictions, we don’t think this has been significantly hampered. What may have changed would be that traffickers may now be restricted to claiming their payments from money transfer firms within the same city or municipality due to border control and lockdowns; whereas before they would sometimes claim from different locations — in a neighboring city or municipality — to avoid becoming the subject of suspicions from community members or money transfer firm personnel,” she said.

Reporting disrupted

Another reason threats to children increase during the lockdown is that Covid-19 restrictions are disrupting reporting services and action on them, the WeProtect alliance said.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which identifies and has online child sexual abuse content removed from the internet, recorded an 89 percent drop in the number of URLs taken down after being identified as showing child sexual abuse between March 16, 2020 and April 15, 2020 compared to the previous month, WeProtect said.

“Many tech companies and law enforcement units are now obliged to work remotely, which means less access to the tools they would need to take down the material quickly and effectively. As hotlines are forced to reduce their human moderators, content remains live for longer,” it said.

A non-profit organization supported by the European Commission, the IWF itself announced that as a precaution against Covid-19, it would also be operating at a reduced capacity.

Keeping sex abuse content on the internet longer runs the risk of its being stored by individuals and shared further. It raises the risk of Filipino children being further promoted in the peer-to-peer exchange sites of pedophiles, which may prompt an increase in interest and searches for more Filipino children to exploit online.

Awaiting rescue

For children already trapped in an abusive situation, the wait for rescue may also become longer, as law enforcement units in many jurisdictions have been redirected from investigating cybercrime offenses to supporting lockdown measures, WeProtect said.

In the Philippines, however, IJM, which has supported the country in responding to child sex trafficking for nearly 20 years, assures there has been no letup in its operations.

Fifteen IJM-supported operations led by the Philippine National Police Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC) and the National Bureau of Investigation Anti-Human Trafficking Division (NBI-AHTRAD) were conducted against Osec in the Philippines from April 6 to June 17, 2020. Five of these operations took place in Cebu.

During these operations, 57 victims were rescued, seven of them in Cebu. Nine suspects were arrested, one of them in Cebu.

E-promulgation

Courts have also continued to function despite Covid-19 restrictions. Last May 26, David Timothy Deakin was convicted in Pampanga of large-scale qualified trafficking in persons committed against at least eight victims and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Judge Irineo Pangilinan Jr. handed down his decision through video conferencing from Regional Trial Court Branch 58 in Angeles City, Pampanga, making Deakin the first foreigner to be convicted for trafficking offenses through online proceedings in the Philippines, IJM said.

NBI-AHTRAD operatives arrested Deakin in his rented house in Angeles City in 2017 after a tip from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation that the American was sexually abusing Filipino children and recording this for sale to foreign clients online.

On hearing of Deakin’s sentence, IJM said one of his victims reacted: “He won’t be able to victimize anyone anymore. Thank God.”

“This conviction came out at an unprecedented time of pandemic when things seemed to have come to a stop as people are quarantined in their homes, but justice cannot be stopped. More than ever, our justice system should continue to work to protect vulnerable children who are unsafe during the lockdown,” IJM National Director Samson Inocencio Jr. said in a statement after the conviction.

Continuing threat

Pandemic or not, Police Major Niño Lawrence Ibo, chief of investigation at the WCPC-Visayas Field Unit (WCPC-VFU), said threats to children will continue.

Among the reasons are the low barriers to entry in the business.

All a trafficker needs to start a business is a cellular phone, postpaid internet and a child. All the rest, the trafficker can learn from the customer, Ibo said.

“Some traffickers are high school graduates,” Ibo said. “It usually starts with foreigners making friends with them online. The foreigner sends money regularly and gains their trust. This is called grooming. So they get used to asking for money. Then the foreigner starts asking for something in return,” and specifies the ages of the children he wants to see, Ibo said.

It’s not difficult to expand the business either.

Ibo said there is a type of “syndicated trafficking” wherein friends from three houses share customers. If one gets a generous customer, that trafficker informs the friends about it, so they too can get that foreigner as a customer. They conceal their relationship from the foreigner.

The best part is the easy money.

“A trafficker can ask for $10 (P500) just for images that are not even very explicit yet, just a sexy pose,” Ibo said.

Saving children

At the Philippine National Police (PNP), it’s a race against time to find the victims.

When foreign law enforcement gives tips to the Philippines about nationals in their countries buying online sexual exploitation material from traffickers in the Philippines, a team in Camp Crame follows the digital footprints to determine the proximate location of the trafficker. Then it farms the case out to the police in the region where the trafficker is operating, Ibo said.

The WCPC-VFU conducts the surveillance and further investigation leading to the arrest of the perpetrators and rescue of the victims.

Local police in Cebu’s towns and cities are not yet capable of conducting online investigation, Ibo said. “But training is slowly going on per police station.”

The WCPC-VFU and the Anti-Cyber Crime Group in Barangay Lahug, Cebu City also conduct their own online monitoring of suspected Osec.

But these days, police have been receiving more tips from the community, following greater awareness that a unit in the PNP monitors such activity.

Tips come in the form of links sent to the WCPC-VFU containing child sex abuse content.

Citizens have also reported on neighbors who are always on the internet, are able to buy goods daily and are known to have a foreigner friend, the combination of which raises the suspicion of Osec. The WCPC-VFU then checks whether children are being brought to these internet sessions.

Local government

“Hopefully, the public will be aware, like what Cordova is doing. The local government gives a reward to those who give tips on suspected trafficking, including Osec,” Ibo said.

Cordova used to hog the headlines for the cases of child cybersex in the town. But it has since used legislation to deter trafficking.

On July 3, 2019, Cordova passed Ordinance 2019-39 providing persons who give information on Osec in the town P20,000 if validation results in the perpetrator’s arrest.

In 2014, the town also passed an ordinance requiring money transfer firms to report customers involved in suspicious transactions. Owners of money transfer firms who refuse to report suspicious customers would be fined at least P2,500 or face charges from the municipal government.

The 2015 National Baseline Study on Violence against Children says local government units (LGU) have the main responsibility to protect children through their Local Councils for the Protection of Children (LCPC).

But the study led by the Council for the Welfare of Children and supported by Unicef acknowledged that LGUs have a low capacity to prevent and respond to violence against children because “in almost all areas visited by the research team, the LCPC and its grassroots counterpart, the Barangay Council for the Protection of Children (BCPCs), are not in place, or if ever, they are not fully functional.”

Proactive

Not all LGUs are created equal, however, with some being more proactive than others.

In Talisay City, Social Welfare and Development Office focal person for Osec Lowella Vestil said its LCPC met monthly to discuss their work against child abuse—until Covid-19 happened.

She said its Local Council on Anti-Trafficking had been active since 2014 giving technical assistance to barangays.

“There is a training once a year on Osec — how to detect, respond and the referral system,” she said. “The BCPCs of our 22 barangays have a group chat.”

The Children’s Legal Bureau had a project in Talisay from 2015-2019, where it capacitated the BCPCs on child rights protection, she said.

Children in all public elementary and high schools in the city from Grade 5 are taught what are “acceptable touches” and to be wary of strangers trying to chat with them online, Vestil said.

To avoid blackmail, Vestil said, children are warned never to show their bodies.

“We tell them, ‘Once they take your picture, those images can be sold, and you can no longer say no,’” she said.

Sessions against Osec are also conducted with parent-teacher associations and in the barangay.

Despite these efforts, children could still fall into the trap.

Vestil said children look to foreigners to give them scholarships. And seeing the fast track to a comfortable life other locals took by marrying foreigners, the children also harbor dreams of getting a foreign boyfriend who would one day marry them.

Private firms are also doing their part to help children.

In 2016, Globe Telecom launched its Digital Thumbprint Program, where teachers and parents are trained to give workshops to students on cyber safety and security, digital citizenship and critical thinking.

The Department of Education has adopted the program and will integrate the workshop modules in the values formation subject under the K-to-12 curriculum, Globe said in February.

The move is timely, as the shift to e-learning when School Year 2020-2021 begins in August will have children in the country spending more time online, which also increases the screen time available for predators to reach out to them.

Education will now be provided through distance learning after President Rodrigo Duterte forbade the holding of physical classes until a vaccine against Covid-19 becomes available.

Violence

Threats to children online have existed without the adults in their communities knowing.

The national baseline study showed that among children aged 13 to under 18 in the Philippines, “2.5 percent had their own nude body or own sexual activities shown in the internet or cell phone, including both real and falsified images.”

On sexual violence at home, 1.3 percent of children aged 13 to under 18 had had their sex videos or photos taken without their consent with family members as the perpetrators.

Of the children who were sexually abused, only 2.6 percent disclosed the incident to someone.

The study did not specify whether an online client or payment was involved. But it shows the extent to which family members are already willing to sexually abuse children. How much more if there was a financial reward?

All measures

It’s been 30 years since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child called on governments to “take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures” to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation.

Yet, children continue to suffer.

IJM Cebu’s Dejito called for more concerted action against Osec.

“Currently, the technological capability of timely detection is limited. Thus, we call on tech companies to invest in and deploy technology that detects new child sexual exploitation materials and livestreaming of Osec. We also need extra vigilance from all sectors, especially in the communities,” she said.

To cut the flow of money that fuels Osec, Dejito said: “The need has never been greater for financial institutions to strengthen measures to spot transfers linked to child sexual exploitation. To aid in detecting Osec-related money transfers on their platforms, financial companies should collaborate with law enforcement, financial intelligence units and child protection nongovernment organizations to identify relevant indicators.”

“The world wide web was born in the same year as the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore wrote last September to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Convention.

The world could not have seen then the dangers the Web would foist on children.

Saying more than one in three children globally are now regular users of the internet, Fore called for internet service providers and social media platforms to strengthen protections for children.

Just as it did when it united in defense of children and childhood 30 years ago, the world could certainly do so again.