Public Safety Canada Webinar Series 2023
Combatting Online Child Sexual Exploitation
Hosted by Public Safety Canada, 2023
Public Safety Canada leads the National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet, launched in 2004, and works in collaboration with Justice Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
In 2022-2023, Public Safety hosted a three-part webinar series on combatting online child sexual exploitation. The objectives of these webinars were to:
- Provide updates on what is being done within federal and provincial/territorial jurisdictions, civil society and the private sector to advance efforts in combatting online child sexual exploitation;
- Share information on best practices and lessons learned; and
- Facilitate discussions around gaps and challenges related to this crime.
This report provides a summary of the webinar 2023 series titled “Combatting Online Child Sexual Exploitation.”
Key Themes from the Webinar Series
While each webinar focused on a different topic related to OCSE, three key themes emerged across the series:
- OCSE is a complex crime that is still not yet fully understood.
- OCSE takes various forms that impact victims and survivors in different but harmful ways.
- Despite the leaps made in studying its complexity, gaps remain in understanding OCSE, including how boys are victimized.
- These gaps can be filled by listening to the voices and stories of victims and survivors.
- There are benefits and drawbacks to using technology to combat OCSE.
- Technology unlocks massive potential for detecting and investigating OCSE, especially when considering the speed and capacity at which it can scan and sort online content.
- At the same time, technology makes mistakes that can only be corrected by humans. It also poses privacy concerns and concerns surrounding misinformation when data is not properly vetted and communicated.
- Awareness and education are essential components in preventing OCSE.
- Prevention is an important pillar of addressing OCSE that involves training and education among all stakeholders, including parents, caregivers, schools and law enforcement actors.
- At the core of prevention should be the message that victims and survivors deserve support and are never to blame for the violence that they endure.
Webinar 1: The Use of Technology in Combatting Online Child Sexual Exploitation - December 2, 2022
- Despite the differences between domestic and international efforts and landscapes, global and cross-sectoral collaboration is indispensable to combatting online child sexual exploitation (OCSE).
- While emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) can be helpful tools in combatting OCSE, they pose ethical concerns that should be considered alongside their adoption. One of these concerns is that technologies make mistakes that can only be corrected by human review and validation. Another concern is that misinformation exists surrounding how technologies affect users when measures to combat OCSE are implemented.
- In the use of technologies like AI, tensions persist between privacy concerns and the protection of children, particularly for the digital industry and technology providers. More specifically, questions remain surrounding the increased risks of privacy violations on technology platforms. To address these questions, the digital industry needs to be held accountable when material is uploaded and distributed on their platforms, especially when removal notices have already been issued. The goal is to move from apathy to action so that the industry can take preventative measures in removing material before it is downloaded and further circulated.
- The process of moving from detection to prosecuting offenders of OCSE remains lengthy. Law enforcement officers and agencies face burnout and a constant backlog in reviewing material, which makes it challenging to keep up with the volume of material and the pace of technological change.
Presentation 1: AI for Safer Children's Global Hub: The Platform for Law Enforcement to Leverage AI to Fight OCSE. Maria Eira, Information and Technology Officer, Centre for AI and Robotics, United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute
- The Global Hub provides law enforcement agencies with information about the tools at their disposal to combat OCSE and the ways in which they can be integrated into their investigative workflows.
- The “AI Tools Catalogue” section of the Global Hub presents information about the tools available to prevent, detect and prosecute OCSE. So far, 63 tools are featured on the platform. Users can find details about the software, including a description, a cost breakdown, and who to contact for more information. Moreover, there is a feedback mechanism where users can provide comments on valuable features, areas for improvement, and the hardware and computer skills each tool requires. Users can contact other agencies to share their experiences and provide additional advice.
- The team behind the platform has started to hold online information sessions to update users on new technologies available and invite guest speakers to discuss trends and solutions. The team also plans to offer online and in-person training programs in specific regions in accordance with country needs and in collaboration with technology providers. Finally, the team is organizing hackathons to develop ideas and solutions for detecting and preventing OCSE and will make them available to members of the Global Hub.
- Law enforcement agencies interested in joining the Global Hub can register online.
Presentation 2: Using Griffeye Analyze DI Pro to Streamline Investigations. Sherry Torres, Police Detective/Digital Forensic Examiner/UN Consultant/Griffeye Trainer
- In 2013, when Detective Sherry Torres began working in the field of OCSE, the methods that she was using were insufficient and inefficient. Since then, there have been vast improvements in technology and AI. However, despite these advancements, some investigators are still experiencing exposure to harmful materials, deepening backlogs on their devices, and a high rate of turnover in their units.
- Giving investigators the right tools will help avoid burnout and increase staff retention. Griffeye is an investigative technology that supports mental health, reduces workloads and finds evidence faster.
- Griffeye contains an intelligence database of digital media that allows it to identify known files. With this intelligence database, investigators can quickly identity material that has not been seen before. It is in this material that new victims can be found. Using various technologies, the tool can connect files related by location, camera, and visual similarity. It can also classify images based on objects or faces found in them and can find matches for items or individuals that look similar to one another. These features make it easier for officers to pinpoint material that has been flagged as child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and to identify and safeguard victims faster.
- AI is not a perfect technology and human intervention is still needed to review and validate Griffeye results.
- Because Griffeye might seem overwhelming to officers who are new to it, the tool has built in an interactive checklist to guide new users on the steps for a victim-centric workflow and where to accomplish that within the tool.
Presentation 3: Project Arachnid: Industry and the Proactive Detection of CSAM. Lloyd Richardson, Director of Technology, The Canadian Centre for Child Protection
- The Canadian Centre for Child Protection introduced Project Arachnid in 2017. Arachnid is a global, automated web crawler that rapidly detects and processes large volumes of images and sends takedown notices to online service providers to remove CSAM.
- As of December 2022, Arachnid has scanned 157 billion images. 5.7 million images have been verified as CSAM, with an additional 2 million being harmful images of children and youth not fully clothed or clothed but still infringing on their privacy or consent. At the time, there was a backlog of 39 million images to review that did not match known criteria.
- The presenter explained that industry can integrate with Project Arachnid in three ways: proactive detection, hash downloads and URL lists.
- Proactive detection: Once an image is uploaded to the internet, it bounces against a shield that evaluates it in real time. If the shield detects potential CSAM, it flags the image and stops its distribution on the spot. Where images without matches might still be related to CSAM, the tool conducts in-depth scans using descriptor-based matching. It identifies points in the image called descriptors and flags matches with existing CSAM.
- Hashes: Hashes are like fingerprints on digital files and are good for matching exact images. When images and their formats are modified, however, perceptual hashes can be helpful. These hashes are more contextual, meaning that they scan the pixel data in images and videos to determine similarities even when other parts have been changed or are dissimilar. Arachnid compares images and videos and maps similarities and differences for detection purposes. From there, hash lists can be made available to the digital industry so that they can scan material themselves.
- URL filtering: Arachnid has a database of Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), also known as web addresses, containing specific types of material that can be removed or blocked. The presenter and his team can filter access to URLs or make them available to internet service providers for them to block. While blocking is a less desirable approach, it is sometimes useful for providers who will not remove material in a timely fashion.
Webinar 2: Sextortion and Emerging Trends - January 27, 2023
- Sextortion is a complex crime that takes different forms and victimizes children and youth in different ways. It is inherently organized and targeted, knows no geographic boundaries and thus demands domestic and international cooperation across law enforcement agencies.
- Education and access to resources are key pillars in preventing and combatting sextortion. Information needs to be tailored to the relevant audience and should cover various points in the process of victimization, including responding before, during and after material and payment has been exchanged.
- A key message at the core of education and resource provision must be that victims are never to blame, should receive empathy and support and should understand that there is a way to move past events of sextortion.
Presentation 1: Trends in Financial Sextortion. Analysts from the National Child Exploitation Crime Centre and the Sensitive and Specialized Investigative Services, Royal Canadian Mounted Police
- Sextortion is a form of blackmail where an offender threatens to distribute a sexual image or video of another person unless they pay them money or provide them with more sexual material. Financial sextortion, where offenders ask for money in exchange for not distributing sexual material, comprises the majority of reports and more often affects boys from 15-17 years old. Sexual sextortion, where offenders ask for more material in exchange for not distributing, comprises a small portion of reports and more often affects girls from 13-14 years old.
- Offenders typically follow a similar process for committing the crime. They meet victims online and coerce them into sending sexual material by pretending to be someone of their own age. Offenders threaten to expose the victim by distributing material to their families, friends, schools and workplaces to force them into sending them money or additional sexual material. As a further threat, offenders may also send victims sexual material and then accuse them of being in possession of child pornography. Offenders operate from all over the world, but the RCMP has recently observed the trend of offenders pretending to be in North America when, in reality, they are located abroad.
- The presenters provided a series of recommendations for addressing sextortion based on the audience involved. Their first message focused on the importance of education and prevention, as everyone is encouraged to learn about warning signs and maintain certain best practices such as using privacy settings on social media. If a person believes that they or someone they know are being sextorted, they recommended stopping all communication with offenders, not complying with any threats and deactivating (but not deleting) social media accounts. It is important to cease communication with offenders, but it is also important to preserve as much information as possible. Finally, their advice for parents, educators, law enforcement agencies and those supporting victims centered on the fact that victims are never to be shamed or blamed for their experiences of sextortion.
- The presenters concluded by sharing a list of resources for navigating sextortion and other forms of OCSE and encouraging participants to explore the resources in their communities. Some of these resources include the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, Kids Help Phone, Cybertip.ca (Canada's tipline for reporting OCSE) and needhelpnow.ca (a resource for parents, guardians and teens to stop the spread of sexual pictures and videos proliferating on the internet).
Presentation 2: Project Maverick. Detective Lesley Zimmer, Internet Child Exploitation Unit, Toronto Police Service' Detective Staff Sergeant Timothy (Tim) Brown, Ontario Provincial Strategy Coordinator, Ontario Provincial Police
- In 2006, the provincial government launched Project Maverick, an initiative dedicated to collaboratively addressing online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) in Ontario. With the support of two ministries and 27 law enforcement agencies, Project Maverick pools resources and intelligence to protect children and hold offenders accountable.
- Detective Zimmer and Detective Staff Sergeant Brown presented a video on Project Maverick and the Provincial Strategy to Protect Children from Sexual Abuse and Exploitation on the Internet. The video highlights the progress to date on its mission of tackling OCSE in different regions of Ontario, including updates from the Toronto Police Service, Niagara Regional Police, Peel Regional Police and Durham Regional Police.
- In October 2022, Project Maverick identified 61 victims, completed 255 investigations, issued 168 warrants, seized 1,032 devices, arrested 107 people and safeguarded 60 children. Despite this success, officers are aware that their work is not done, as there are still 175 investigations open and case numbers continue to rise.
Presentation 3: An Analysis of Financial Sextortion Victim Posts. Kelly Barker, Research Analyst, Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Jacques Marcoux, Director of Research and Analytics, Canadian Centre for Child Protection
- The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P) conducted a study on sextortion using data from cybertip.ca and a Reddit forum called “r/Sextortion,” where users from around the world post information about their first-hand experiences of sextortion.
- The study exposed various quantitative insights into the nature, prevalence and impacts of sextortion:
- There has been growth in the number of users following the forum. There were 6,300 users in September 2022 as compared to the 9,000 users that signed up as of February 6, 2023.
- Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp are the primary platforms where sextortion is committed. Cross-platform activities are also common, where an initial encounter may occur on a different platform than the one through which material and payment are demanded.
- PayPal was the most commonly cited payment processor, although cryptocurrencies were also used. Methods varied based on what platforms are available in different regions.
- One hundred seventy-five victims did not comply with demands for payment, 174 did comply and nearly all experienced additional demands. Despite paying, 40% of victims still experienced sexual material being distributed.
- The most common amount of money paid by victims to offenders was between $100 and $500.
- The study also revealed several qualitative insights from victims:
- Victims noticed 'red flags' that made them suspicious of offenders' interactions on social media: poor grammar, sexual content and relatively new profiles.
- They also noticed 'green flags' that made offenders' social profiles seem more legitimate, such as real followers and high engagement levels.
- Requests for gift cards by offenders were common because they can exchange cards for cash to distance themselves from criminal transactions.
- Cybersecurity firms and 'recovery scammers' used fear-based or high-pressure tactics to offer escalating package deals for sexual material removal. Most victims reported that these services were ineffective.
- The design of social media platforms increases the risk of victimization in multiple ways, including incentives to share personal information and inadequate reporting options or inaction upon reporting.
Webinar 3: The Role of Civil Society Organizations and Academia in the Fight Against Online Child Sexual Exploitation - February 24, 2023
- Research and knowledge-sharing is critical in the effort to combat global online child sexual exploitation (OCSE). Law enforcement is only able to do so much with the tools that currently exist, and policies and procedures are often unable to keep up with changing technologies and evolving online threats. Civil society and academia also play an important role in identifying best practices and convening opportunities for sharing best practices and lessons learned between partners operating across jurisdictions.
- There remain important gaps in better understanding the crime of OCSE, the perpetrators who use online spaces to lure and abuse children and the experiences of children in the online spaces that they frequent. Gaps also persist in understanding specific issues like the prevalence of OCSE from within a child's circle of trust or the sexual exploitation of boys.
- More work needs to be done to broaden the conversation around OCSE to include different voices and to increase awareness and education among children, youth and the public. Children and youth need to be empowered to make decisions over their bodies, recognize when abuses might be occurring and feel confident in disclosing these situations to the authorities. Children and youth should also be involved in designing programs and policies in response to their experiences, as they are often far more knowledgeable and efficient in navigating online spaces than researchers, law enforcement officers or decision-makers.
Presentation 1: Tackling Online Child Sexual Exploitation: A Programme of Research and Innovation. Simon Bailey, CBE, QPM, DL, Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom
- As a law enforcement officer turned academic, the presenter used to believe that it was possible to “arrest your way out of the OCSE problem.” He now recognizes that law enforcement is just one part of a broader response that is required to protect children and youth online. As a result, Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom is overseeing a research program aimed at innovation, knowledge development, collaboration and information-sharing to prevent exploitation, improve investigations and keep children safe. This program aims to address significant gaps in understanding about OCSE and create opportunities for best practices to be implemented.
- The program funds research in several categories, including better understanding offender behaviour and approaches to intervention. It also identifies best practices for supporting victims and survivors, including programs aimed at better reaching the families of offenders and better working with officers and frontline workers. A key finding from the research is that there are challenges in communicating the risks that online spaces pose to children and teenagers, including the risks of creating self-generated imagery or the risks related to encryption and encrypted messaging platforms.
- The research being done at the university is supplemented by 40 other institutions that have joined the Child Sexual Abuse Research Network. This network aims to create an international space for researchers to collaboratively deliver evidence-based research that drives change in policies and practices related to OCSE. The core objectives of the network are to identify gaps in knowledge and understanding and to methodologically respond to these gaps in an effort to better equip law enforcement officers, investigators, researchers and support workers in protecting children and youth online.
Presentation 2: Leaving No One Behind: Taking Stock of the Latest Developments in the Area of Sexual Exploitation of Children. Guillaume Landry, Executive Director, ECPAT International
- ECPAT Network is the world's largest civil society network combatting OCSE. With 124 partners in 104 countries, the network coordinates efforts between regions and countries to help partner organizations respond to threats as they evolve. It centers the voices of victims to ensure that they are heard when discussing approaches to addressing OCSE. It also ensures that evolving technologies are reflected in policies to combat OCSE, recognizing that the relationship between justice systems, law enforcement agencies and technologies remains complicated.
- ECPAT shares experiences from around the world in an effort to change perceptions of OCSE and OCSE victims. The presenter provided an overview of case studies that illustrate challenges in different regions:
- In Southern Africa, police struggled to intervene in cases of OCSE because the technologies used by perpetrators to lure victims were hosted outside of the country.
- In Western Africa, victims took compromising photos of their perpetrators to use as blackmail in an attempt to secure release.
- In East Asia, while OCSE cases are on the rise, perpetrators further victimize children by requiring that they procure drugs or other illegal substances.
- In the Baltic states, psychosocial therapists have begun focusing on children with disabilities who have been victimized because of their eagerness to use technology to overcome limitations.
- The European Union is the first jurisdiction to explore OCSE in the context of online gaming, a venue where perpetrators often make first contact with victims.
- ECPAT recognizes that, despite girls being over-represented as victims of OCSE, boys have historically been overlooked by programs aimed at protecting children or supporting victims. This omission makes boys particularly vulnerable, as less than five of the 124 organizations in the network are solely focused on situations where victims are boys. ECPAT has been working to increase awareness and collaboration on this gap.
- ECPAT focuses on the voices of survivors and recognizes the importance of working with children and youth to better understand risks, threats and tools for supporting victims of OCSE. It is important to understand children and youth's experiences, especially because they comprise a generation that comprehends and navigates technology better than researchers do. The sector needs to explore ways to develop solutions with children rather than for children and work to ensure that every child is educated about sexuality, the importance of reporting and best practices to keep themselves and their peers safe online.
- ECPAT and its partners across regions and countries have found that the conversation needs to change around OCSE, as victims often blame themselves or believe that they will get in trouble, or the situation will get worse if they disclose what is happening to them.
Presentation 3: Trajectories and Offending Patterns of Men Who Use the Internet to Sexually Exploit Children and Adolescents. Dr. Sarah Paquette, Scientific Researcher, Service de la coordination des enquêtes sur les crimes majeurs, Sûreté du Québec
- The presenter provided an overview of the PRESEL Project, a French acronym for the Research Project on the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children. PRESEL is a collaborative project led by academics and police forces in Québec from 2016 to 2021, including Université de Montréal, Université Laval and Québec's provincial police, la Sûreté du Québec (SQ).
- A lack of available data specific to OCSE has made research. In general, although there are many cases where perpetrators enter into contact with children online, if they create or receive images as a result of that contact, they are charged with distributing or possessing child pornography and data is classified by researchers as such. If they move from an online interaction to an offline interaction, they are charged with sexual abuse of a child and data falls under that category. As a result, the data around cases where online contact is the primary charge is somewhat limited.
- One of the goals of PRESEL is to better understand the offending patterns of men who sexually exploit children and youth online. These patterns could include men who use the internet to enter into communication with victims with the intent to remain online or to further their contact toward an offline interaction. As a broad insight, the project's collaborators noted that children often operate in online spaces, which increases their risk of being sexually approached by an adult in these spaces. Insights like this one are used to equip SQ officers and their partners in investigations and other efforts toward combatting OCSE.
- In terms of more detailed findings, PRESEL identified four offending patterns among male offenders. Two patterns focused on offenders that contact children online with the intention of moving the interaction offline: one where the motivation was an emotional connection with the victim and another where the motivation was purely sexual with the aim of luring and abusing the victim in person. The other two patterns focused on offenders that enter into contact with children with the intention of remaining entirely online: one where the motivation was playing out fantasies without ever meeting offline and another where someone exposes themselves online in spaces where children might be present without necessarily seeking out or interacting with children. Despite research limitations, it is hoped that identifying these four patterns will encourage further research to better understand them.
Public Safety Canada would like to thank the presenters and participants for sharing their expertise and experiences during the 2022-2023 webinar series.
A key takeaway from this webinar series is the importance of research, education and training among all stakeholders, including parents, caregivers, schools, law enforcement and governments to more effectively prevent online child sexual exploitation.
Technology unlocks massive potential for detecting and investigating OCSE. However, despite advances made in studying the complexity of this crime, gaps remain, and can be addressed by listening to the voices of victims and survivors.
The Government of Canada continues to work with Provinces and Territories, non-governmental organizations, stakeholders, and international partners to combat the complex crime of online child sexual exploitation.
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