Reports of online sexual extortion against teenagers reached “shocking” levels in the first six months of this year, according to a report released Monday by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
The organisation, a UK charity which aims to make the internet a safer place for children by removing global images of child sexual abuse online, revealed it had received more reports of “sextortion” during the first six months of 2023 than during the whole of 2022.
Sextortion occurs when sexually explicit images or videos are exchanged online and the victim is then blackmailed and threatened into sharing the content with friends and family or, more widely, on the Internet.
In the first half of 2023, the report notes, the IWF investigated 191 complaints of sextortion, compared to just 30 for all of 2022. Of the 191 complaints, analysts confirmed 75 and called for the objectionable material be blocked or removed from the Internet. This represents an increase of 252% compared to 2022, when measures were taken from 21 companies.
“It is shocking to see that more and more children are being cynically targeted in this way by manipulative online abusers,” Susie Hargreaves, CEO of the IWF, said in a statement.
“(T)his data is deeply disturbing, as it shows a significant increase in the appalling and cynical way in which criminals seek to make money through abuse and coercion, with little regard for the lifelong harm it causes to these children and young people,” added Ian. Critchley, the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council, responsible for investigating child protection and abuse.
The figures released by the IWF may shock some people, but it is important to put them into perspective. Child pornography is a major problem, but more IWF reports do not necessarily indicate an equal and proportional increase in abuse, argued Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech, a review website, advice and information on consumer safety products. .
“The increase could be caused by more victims turning to the IWF as it becomes more popular and reputable,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Victims who contact the IWF are afraid and desperate to prevent their images from being shared online, noted one of the analysts at the organization, which calls itself Zara to protect their privacy. “If they report the images directly to us, we can hash and block the criminal image,” Zara said in a statement.
A hash is a string of text and numbers generated from the binary data of an image that acts as a digital fingerprint that can be shared with online platforms so they can block the spread of the material.
The IWF report also reveals that older adolescents (14 to 17 years old) are most at risk, with boys most often targeted by abusers. At least 6% of the content was classified as Category A, it adds, which is the most serious and can include instances of penetration.
“There are many reasons why boys, especially teenagers, are likely to be victims of sextortion,” observed Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation, a think tank studying the intersection of data, from technology and public policy in Washington, DC.
“Part of this has to do with the adolescent brain: Teenagers are likely to be impulsive, misread social cues, and engage in risky behaviors,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Part of this has to do with inexperience, especially when it comes to sexuality and relationships.”
“Imagine a teenager who receives a message from a peer who expresses interest in them,” he explained. “They exchange photos and videos, with the teenager not realizing that he is actually the target of bullies, scammers or anyone else. Now the other party is demanding money or something else, like more photos and videos, in exchange for not disclosing these private messages and media.”
“Unfortunately, this scenario has happened too often,” he said. “And worse, some of these boys panicked and killed themselves. »
New playground for predators
Chris Hauk, consumer privacy advocate at Pixel Privacy, publisher of consumer security and privacy guides, added that young boys are heavy Internet users, making them attractive targets for predators. .
“Whereas 20 or 30 years ago, predators frequented parks and playgrounds to attract young people, they now frequent different types of playgrounds, including social networks, online forums and chat rooms , as well as online gaming arenas,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“Crimes against children have increased in recent years as there has been a huge increase in the number of people staying at home and going online more, especially children,” he added. “Children play online, use chat rooms and social media to stay in touch with friends, meaning they are increasingly attractive targets for predators.”
The year-on-year increase in the number of child pornography content removed from social networks indicates the scale of the problem. For example, Facebook reported 73.3 million pieces of “child nudity and sexual exploitation” content between January and September 2022, compared to 77.5 million for all of 2021.
It’s also worth noting that Facebook only reports content that Facebook detects and removes. The actual amount of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) circulating online is likely much higher.
“CSAM is a growing problem, and it is difficult for technology companies like Apple to protect users from this problem without violating their privacy,” Hauk said.
“Apple recently backed away from its CSAM detection plans,” he continued, “due to concerns raised by privacy advocates, customers, and even Apple employees.”
“Parents and policymakers are right to be concerned about these horrific crimes,” added Jennifer Huddleston, a technology policy researcher at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, “but most of the proposed policy solutions do not only would probably fail. significantly improve the situation, but could also make it even more difficult to prosecute bad actors engaged in such malicious acts.
Importance of communication
Huddleston told TechNewsWorld that there are a variety of tools available both across platforms and as separate services to help parents control who can contact their teen or see content they share.
“Parents or other trusted adults in a teen’s life should talk with them about what to do if they find themselves in a problematic situation online,” she advised. “Our digital age has many benefits, but young people also need to be aware of the potential risks and know how to respond to or report such inappropriate behavior. »
“Additionally,” she continued, “policy in this area should focus on ensuring that law enforcement has the tools necessary to pursue bad actors rather than erecting barriers to prevent adolescents from ‘use the Internet in a beneficial way. »
If a child is threatened with sextortion, they should immediately stop communicating with the abuser and no longer share personal information or explicit content, added Yaron Litwin, chief marketing officer of Canopy, a maker of software and tools that enable sextortion. monitor children’s devices and online activity.
“It is crucial to notify a trusted adult, such as a parent or teacher, and report the incident to law enforcement,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The evidence must be preserved and the child must not feel ashamed or guilty because they are the victim in this situation. »