New approaches needed to proactively protect children as online sexual exploitation and abuse continues to increase

- John-Orr Hanna

New approaches needed to proactively protect children as online sexual exploitation and abuse continues to increase

This week, WeProtect Global Alliance issued a stark warning: the current scale of online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) is continuing to increase beyond the capacity to respond. The Alliance’s 2021 Global Threat Assessment sounds the alarm on the distressing rise in the reach and complexity of CSEA around the world.

This year’s study calls for a new approach, prioritizing the active prevention of online abuse before it happens, in order to create a safer digital world for all children. This intervention is made more urgent by children’s increased attachment to the internet over the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crisp worked closely with the WeProtect Global Alliance team and PA Consulting Group to provide data and perspective on this critical risk to children globally. We were troubled to find that the pandemic had permitted offender tactics and tradecraft to evolve at pace, presenting new and unseen forms of this crime.

New challenges posed by a pandemic-induced intelligence gap

The 2021 Global Threat Assessment is distinguished from previous years’ reports by the unique repercussions of COVID-19 on online behavior. At Crisp, we’ve seen first-hand how volumes across our gaming and social media client platforms spiked over the initial wave of global lockdowns as people turned to online channels to engage with people virtually rather than physically.

Key aspects of social relationships—support, interaction and intimacy—were severely disrupted by pandemic restrictions, creating new opportunities for offenders. For some, working from home presented the prospect of spending almost 100% of their day focused on targeting vulnerable minors online—without work colleagues overseeing their behavior in a shared office.

Crisp analysts also noted a wider offender focus on COVID-based themes, such as “home alone” and other related content. With additional time due to remote working, offenders invested more effort into evading detection, making it harder for them to be caught or identified by the platforms. In terms of a response to this challenge we still have further to go in the detection of grooming. The Tech Coalition reported that only 37% of their respondents deploy toolsets for the identification of grooming.

With reporting of online CSEA reaching even higher levels, it is clear that new preventative approaches are needed over reactive ones. Rather than trying to manage the aftermath of an incident we must, as a global community, explore all proactive options. Without the ability to stay ahead of offenders’ evolving tradecraft, any approach or toolset will struggle to meet the capacity of response needed to succeed.

Evolving offender tradecraft makes protecting victims more challenging

Changing technology has allowed offenders to more freely identify and interact with like-minded individuals, permitting the threat of online exploitation and abuse to evolve and escalate. The growth of these communities is of extreme concern not only because it fosters the normalization of offending, but also because the tradecraft shared in these communities educates new offenders on how to become more effective—gaining better access to victims whilst becoming better at evading detection.

This evolution is evidenced by the intelligence vignettes Crisp contributed to the assessment. The four examples below are based on first-party data and cover a variety of offender tactics, including the tools they use to exploit, their masked language techniques, the role of cloud sharing, and the unfortunate re-traumatization of survivors due to offender-created fake profiles.

  • Offenders continually seek new tools. Over 56.8% of all discussion observed on known offender dark web forums was related to new tools to evade detection and make offending more secure—with the only other two categories being Social Media Platforms (32.8%) and Direct Messaging (10.4%).
  • Masked language hides harmful content in gaming. Veiled or hidden use of typical grooming or child sexual abuse material (CSAM) terms in Gaming has grown over 13% 2019-2020. This resulted in the further discovery of 50% additional harmful content.
  • Cloud sharing fuels interactions with harmful content. From 2020 Q1 to 2021 Q1, Crisp’s analysis shows that instances of user engagement or interactions with harmful content relating to CSEA exploded to nearly 20 million in Q1 2021—up significantly from more than 5.5 million in Q1 2020.
  • Offenders re-traumatize survivors using fake profiles. Many offender groups reference known CSAM survivors to indicate online preferences and to find and network with like-minded individuals. In Q1 2021, Crisp identified 3,324 unique pieces of posted content, each resulting in as many as 2,000 interactions. This “network effect” illustrates the malignancy of this sharing, with each interaction perpetuating the exploitation of the survivor referenced in the account.

Growing severity requires new online safety technologies

In light of the increasing scale and scope of online CSEA, the gathering and sharing of intelligence on the risks to children has never been more important. A more optimistic finding in the 2021 Global Threat Assessment is the acknowledgement of recent advances in online safety technology and increased government engagement, which is starting to turn the tide on this global crisis.

Yes, we all have to work together. But we also need to take a stronger bias toward the bad actors and groups that cause the harm, not just their content after the fact when it is invariably too late. Crisp’s dedicated actor-centric approach to risk intelligence is at the heart of our efforts and emphasizes a targeted focus on the evolving strategies, behaviors and tradecraft of the offenders responsible for these insidious crimes.

Helping to create a digital world that is safe for everyone—especially children—is a commitment that’s been part of Crisp’s DNA since day one. For more than 15 years, we’ve worked tirelessly to promote online safety by using digital chatter to predict the actions of key offenders and prevent the spread and impact of their damaging behaviors. Today, our Actor Risk Intelligence contributes to the safe, daily online experiences of more than two billion users, including an estimated 450 million children.

Everyone at Crisp is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to WeProtect Global Alliance’s 2021 Global Threat Assessment. We hope to inspire as broad and diverse a readership as possible to ensure that as a committed community we can work together on this incredibly important mission.

To download the full report, please visit https://bit.ly/GlobalThreatAssessment21.

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