At the beginning of October, Europol (European Police Office) introduced its annual Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) report on cybercrime. The report focuses on six main topics: cyber-dependent crime, payment fraud, the criminal abuse of the dark web, the convergence of cyber and terrorism, cross-cutting crime factors and online child sexual exploitation (CSE).
In connection with online CSE, one of the most significant findings is that the number of these cases has increased, along with the amount of CSEM (child sexual exploitation material): images and videos displaying a sexual act involving children. According to the report, the main reasons behind this tendency is the growing number of young children accessing the internet and abusers’ increased ability to remain anonymous.
IOCTA highlights that of the 19 member states included in the report, 10 have recognized an increase in online CSE. Furthermore, Europol is currently handling more than 46 million images and videos related to online child sexual exploitation. These materials appear on many different platforms, mainly on image-host websites on the open web, but also through the channels of the dark web. Peer-to-peer distribution, mostly via social media channels, is also typical; users share self-generated materials which often end up on CSEM platforms.
Another online criminal activity, the online solicitation of children, also poses a severe threat in the European Union. It often takes place on the open web and on social media platforms where it is easier to reach children and younger generations. It is very simple and fast to create a fake profile and to convince a child they are communicating with someone their age. An interesting fact from the report is that offenders target profiles with many friends in the belief it is easier to build contact with these users.
The report also emphasizes that the sexual coercion and extortion of children mainly happens to get new CSEMs, but financial gain might also be a motive.
All of the above-mentioned threats can lead to significant trauma for the victims, even suicide. It is crucial to educate children on how to use the internet and social media sites, and to create clear messages that raise awareness of online sexual exploitation activities. The report also suggests ‘coordinated action with the private sector and the deployment of new technologies, including AI, could help reduce the production and distribution of online CSEM’.