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Reporting findings of online abuse material is not required by law
Online abuse of children has increased considerably in recent years. Technological advances and inadequate legal regulation are driving this development, according to a recent report.
One million discoveries of abuse material were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2010.
Over the next nine years, the number increased to approximately 17 million. And in 2021, the American organisation received about 30 million inquiries.
“These figures only reflect the cases that were reported,” Jan William Johnsen says. He is a researcher at the Department of Information Security and Communication Technology at NTNU in Gjøvik.
He believes these figures are probably just the tip of the iceberg.
"When thousands of hours of video are produced every minute, it goes without saying that the full extent of abuse material in circulation is challenging to estimate,” he says.
Report sent to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security
Researchers at NTNU and BI Norwegian Business School have examined how new technology affects the production and dissemination of child abuse material.
They have produced a report that has been submitted to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. The report is titled Seksuell utnyttelse av barn over internett (Online child sexual exploitation).
"There is little doubt that the past decades of technological advancement have brought many benefits," Johnsen says.
He authored the report with Matilda Dorotic, an associate professor at BI Norwegian Business School.
“At the same time, the developments have facilitated more efficient and difficult-to-trace methods of sharing abuse material,” the researcher says.
A few years ago, law enforcement identified 80 per cent of the perpetrators, whereas today the proportion has dropped to 40 per cent.
One of the report’s interviewees estimates that a few years ago, law enforcement identified 80 per cent of the perpetrators.
Today, the proportion has dropped to 40 per cent.
This development can be attributed largely to the increased use of virtual private networks, cryptocurrency, and anonymity networks like TOR, according to the report.
60 per cent of the material is stored on European servers
The report also addresses several legal issues that complicate the fight against online child abuse.
“Companies in the USA are required by law to report the discovery of abusive material on their platforms to the NCEMC,” Johnsen says.
There are no corresponding legal obligations in Norway or the rest of Europe. This means that law enforcement is completely dependent on the voluntary efforts of companies in the fight against online child abuse.
"When not all companies are aware of or equally concerned about this issue, it becomes problematic," he says.
This lack of oversight has contributed to European servers becoming a popular repository for abuse material. Today, it is estimated that over 60 per cent of the world’s child abuse material is stored on European servers.
Therefore, the authors of the report strongly recommend that European countries should also impose requirements on technology companies not only to report but actively search for child exploitation material on their platforms.
Three trends stand out
Technological advances have given abusers new ways to reach out to more children.
The report points to three trends in particular that are shaping the fight against the sexual exploitation of children online:
- Increase in self-produced abuse material
- Live streaming of abuse
- Artificially generated content
“Not only can abusers contact hundreds of children at once today, but with advanced machine learning techology, they can also impersonate peers in ways that are very difficult to detect,” Johnsen says.
Self-produced abuse material is defined as sexualised images or videos that are created, transmitted, or shared by minors themselves.
A survey from 2021 revealed that over 70 per cent of the reviewed abuse material that year fell into this category.
750,000 active preddators at any given moment
The extent of self-produced abuse material increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic. All of the report’s interviewees refer to this development as highly disturbing.
Half of Norwegian teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 have been asked to share nude photos of themselves.
Around 750,000 offenders are online at any given moment with the intention of grooming children.
At the same time, a culture of sharing among children and young people is emerging, where the sharing of sexualised content with each other is becoming normalised.
For example, the Norwegian Media Authority reports that half of Norwegian teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 have been asked to share nude photos of themselves.
Live streaming abuse from developing countries
The increase in self-produced abuse material can mainly be attributed to two factors:
- Children’s social lives are increasingly shifting to digital arenas.
- The availability of mobile devices with fast internet and good cameras has increased considerably.
The latter in particular has also contributed to the widespread practice of live streaming sexual abuse, especially in developing countries.
"When the streams are encrypted and leave few traces, this kind of abuse becomes difficult to detect using the methods currently available," Johnsen explains.
This makes ordering live streamed abuse from developing countries an attractive option for online predators.
In 2020, it was reported that one in five children between the ages of 12 and 17 in the Philippines had been subjected to sexual abuse online.
Facilitating closer cooperation
Although digital solutions exacerbate the problem of sharing and distributing abuse material, Johnsen emphasises that technology also represents an important part of the solution.
“Using technology that makes it possible to search large volumes of data in a short time is the only way forward,” he says.
However, the researcher emphasises that there is no purely technical solution to the problem.
"Without the necessary legal framework for better cooperation between law enforcement agencies and service providers across countries, all the technology in the world will not put an end to the problem," he says.
Dorotic, M. & Johnsen, J.W. Seksuell utnyttelse av barn over internett – Rapport om analyse av teknologiske faktorer som påvirker produksjon og deling av materiale som seksuelt utnytter barn over internett ( Sexual Exploitation of Children over the Internet: A report on the analysis of technological factors influencing the production and sharing of material), NTNU Report, 2023.
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