By Tracy Cabrera
MANILA – Children are severely affected from enforced lockdowns due to increased cyber activity resulting from home quarantines.
According to WeProtect Global Alliance, an international movement dedicated to ending the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), the dangers have in fact grown for some children as governments across the globe enforce physical distancing to contain the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic that has forced millions of people worldwide to stay home.
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.
In an intelligence brief in April, WeProtect said economic hardship and the inability of offenders to travel due to Covid-19 restrictions has forced them to migrate online, thus increasing the potential for the live streaming abuse of children in home environments.
It cited data from specialist cyber security 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.
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 live streaming 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.
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.