For RCMP officers and analysts fighting online child sexual exploitation, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of connectivity for young people and the need for adults to understand that reality while also protecting them from its dangers.
Online child sexual exploitation usually involves perpetrators using the Internet and social media apps to connect with young people, gain their trust, and ultimately coerce or blackmail them for sexual purposes.
Sgt. Arnold Guerin works at the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC).
He says reports of online sexual exploitation spiked unusually between March and May 2020, at the onset of COVID-19, but have now returned to pre-pandemic levels.
However, as an indication of how numbers have grown, one of the NCECC's primary sources of reports is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the United States. In 2020, the NCECC received approximately 26 per cent more reports from NCMEC compared to 2019, and approximately 316 per cent more NCMEC reports since 2015.
Those levels aren't going down," says Guerin, who explains the centre reviews all the cases it receives, but only those with confirmed child sexual exploitation material are investigated. "
It will always be our job to come up with new ways and means to combat it and spread messages of education and awareness to the community to help protect young people."
Erin Schlosser supervises a team of intelligence analysts at the NCECC that supports efforts to respond to child-at-risk cases, co-ordinates investigative files, helps manage multi-jurisdictional cases and assists with training that is specific to online child sexual exploitation investigations.
At the same time, she says caregivers need to protect young people from online child exploitation by monitoring their activity while also understanding this is how youth connect with their friends.
We have to know who they're talking with," says Schlosser. "
Not someone posing as a friend, or a friend of a friend who would then take advantage of them."
That's because the people who want to exploit young people are also talking amongst themselves – online on the dark web, where people and computer networks can communicate anonymously, sharing best practices in order to lure their targets.
They're sharing information to get leverage over the kids to take advantage of them even further and blackmail them," says Scholosser. "
That's what we want to prevent."
Understanding the challenge
In Alberta, RCMP Sgt. Kerry Shima, recently joined the Internet Child Exploitation Unit, which is integrated with the Edmonton Police Service.
The veteran Alberta officer is active on Twitter and has recently been warning followers about Omegle – a free online chat website that allows users to socialize with others without the need to register.
That's the risk for young people," says Shima. "
Sometimes they don't know who they're talking to and that means sometimes bad things can happen."
He says it's often easy for caregivers, who may not be digitally savvy, to dismiss young people's online activity. Instead he suggests trying to develop an understanding of why it's so important to them and guide them when questions arise.
I think our society needs to understand many young people don't have the life experience they need to guide themselves online," he says. "
More people need to educate themselves and understand the risks and translate that into something the kids can appreciate."
It's a sentiment echoed by Guerin.
That's because, as technology advances, those looking to take advantage of young people will find new ways to gain children's trust and profit from that.
The NCECC was established in 2003 – that was like an ice age ago when it comes to technology," says Guerin "
We have to imagine and understand where things are going so we can protect in the future."
If you or your children see, read, or hear anything of a sexual nature from an adult that is directed at a child, report it to Cybertip.ca or the local police.