By Aara Ramesh
On Monday, May 10, Europol released a new batch of photos as part of its “Trace an Object” program, an ongoing effort to solve child sexual abuse cold cases across the continent.
In their public appeal, the agency said that they are particularly looking for details that might help identify the products’s country of origin. The six pictures released originate from the background of child sexual abuse footage, and have been cropped, censored, and digitally enhanced. Some of the objects are part of cases that are months, or even years, old. Where the trail has gone completely cold, investigators are hoping for fresh clues from average citizens that might help inch them forward.
According to Bellingcat, the British investigative news site that specializes in open-source intelligence, the spread of child sexual abuse material “has been classified as an epidemic of unprecedented proportions, overwhelming law enforcement resources” on a global scale. Cybercrime as a whole is also proving to be a formidable threat, taking on a more “aggressive and confrontational” avatar.
Europol says that online offenders “exhibit considerable resilience in response to law enforcement actions.” They are becoming wiser and more sophisticated; and are more aware of what authorities are looking for. Like the mythical Hydra, when one platform is shut down, new communities pop up elsewhere or old ones are brought back to life. The tech-savvy criminals behind these platforms are making strides in organizing, administering, protecting, and hiding their activities.
Countries where the internet infrastructure is quite advanced and where privacy laws offer a veil of protection are facing the brunt of the problem. In recent years, Europe has become the epicenter of this epidemic. The Internet Watch Foundation’s 2019 Annual Report found that European countries hosted 89% of the known URLs containing child sexual abuse material, up 10% from their share the previous year.
The advent of the internet and the social media age has, however, also helped authorities catch such criminals. Despite offenders growing more sophisticated, law enforcement organizations are developing innovative ways to combat the most difficult problems they face. It may seem like the only way to combat this issue is through crowdsourcing help—which is where “Trace an Object” comes in.
Anyone can submit the tiniest detail on the website in an anonymous and secure manner. They say no clue is too small or irrelevant. Once they receive a tip, victim identification specialists work to verify them. In cases where they result in particularly strong leads, the information is sent to the relevant country’s authorities to pursue it further.
Since it went live in May 2017, investigators have received over 26,000 tips and have been able to zoom in on the country of origin in 93 cases. Europol has identified 10 victims of child sexual abuse, who have been removed from harm. The initiative has also resulted in 3 sexual offenders being identified and prosecuted. But there are numerous other investigations ongoing in Europe to identify victims and their abusers.
Europol’s database has over 51 million unique video or images containing instances of child sexual abuse, which its taskforces are working on. A portion of the material, however, also makes its way onto privately owned social media platforms like Facebook, which is then responsible for flagging this content off with the authorities.
There is some concern that the EU’s latest privacy protection laws, targeting “Big Tech” companies like Facebook and Microsoft, may actually worsen the problem. These companies rely on software that automatically identifies images and videos containing child abuse, as well as instances of online grooming. They claim that the new laws will severely handicap those efforts.
Earlier this month, Europol announced the arrest of four German nationals involved in one of the continent’s most sprawling child sexual abuse platforms on the dark web. Data seized from this operation will be sent to the agency’s Victim Identification Taskforces, which is the same team behind the “Trace an Object” initiative. And in March, it expanded to the Asia-Pacific region, with the Australian Federal Police launching its own version of the project. The subjects of some footage are believed to be in the APAC region.
The solution, experts say, will have to be a coordinated effort. While Europe hopes to take the lead, they will need to be supported by global stakeholders, including private companies, non-profits, various governments, law enforcement agencies, and ordinary citizens who are equally committed to the cause of stopping child abuse.
As criminal syndicates and abusers grow ever smarter, so too do the authorities. Innovations like “Trace an Object” seem to indicate that Europol is betting on the efforts of the many to outnumber the efforts of the few.
You can submit a tip to Europol’s ‘Trace an Object’ team here.