The surge in sexual exploitation coincides with the pandemic’s shift online, as experts sound the alarm

New statistics from Statistics Canada show that the massive shift online brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with the rise of so-called “sex abuse scams.”

As authorities aim to educate youth and parents about online sex crimes, experts are calling for more regulation, education and law enforcement.

Sexual extortion, or sexual exploitation, occurs when a person threatens to share private, often sexually explicit, material online if the victim does not comply with their demands, usually for money.

The crime gained national attention nearly a decade ago when 15-year-old Amanda Todd from Port Coquitlam, BC, killed herself after posting a video in which she was tortured by an anonymous cyber bully. Used flash cards to target. It has been viewed more than 14 million times.

The trial of her alleged harasser, Dutch national Aydin Koban, began in BC Supreme Court in June.

He pleaded not guilty to extortion, harassment, communicating with a juvenile to commit a sex offense and possession and distribution of child pornography. He was not charged in connection with Todd’s death.

Closing arguments in the case wrapped up earlier this week and the jury is now deliberating.

Signi Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, said the problem has grown exponentially since Todd’s death in October 2012.

“It’s out of control,” he said in an interview.

Police across the country are issuing warnings to the public about sexual exploitation scams targeting young people.

“Unfortunately, police around the world have tragically seen some of these incidents end in victims taking their own lives,” Nova Scotia RCMP Internet Child Exploitation Unit Cpl. Mark Sobiraj said in a news release last week. “We are urging parents and guardians to talk to children about potential risks, emphasizing that they can come to you for help.”

Statistics Canada data released Tuesday showed that extortion by police in Canada increased by nearly 300 per cent over the past decade, but crime rose significantly during the pandemic.

Incidents of non-consensual distribution of intimate images involving adult or child victims increased by 194 in 2021, representing a nine percent increase over the previous year, and 52 over the previous five-year average. Percentage increase.

“This increase is being done through social media platforms and other electronic service providers,” Liana Macdonald, executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, said in a news release. “This should be a wake-up call.”

Cybertip.ca, a national tip line for reporting child sexual abuse online, said it had received “unprecedented reports of youths and sometimes their concerned parents being victims of aggressive sexual exploitation tactics.” Received”, which is about 300 online extortion incidents a month. .

Wayne McKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University, said the increase can be partly explained by awareness of cybercrime and better policing, but notable research also shows that online child sexual abuse is often reported. It doesn’t happen.

A review of 322 sexual assault cases by Cybertip.ca in July found that when the gender was known, 92 percent involved boys or young men.

“The review also showed an emerging tactic where the victim is sent nude photos of children from the person behind the fake account. The perpetrator will then threaten to report the victim to the police, claiming that they has child sexual exploitation material. Demands for money are immediate,” the Child Protection Center said in a news release this week.

David Fraser, an internet and privacy lawyer at Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said a big reason some young people don’t come forward is that they believe they are exposed to child pornography of their own image. Can be blamed. “It’s a widespread misunderstanding, sometimes even among law enforcement agencies,” he said.

“We need to be very careful about the messages we send to young people, just to make sure there are safe places they can go and get help before things escalate,” Fraser said. ” Fraser said.

He cited a 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that established a “personal use” exception to child pornography provisions. It states that young people have the right to make intimate photographs of themselves as long as they do not depict illegal sexual activity, are kept for private use only, and are made with the consent of the people in the photograph. are

Fraser would like to see more police resources and education around the issue.

“I’ve seen a general lack of skill and ability across the board on the part of police to take existing laws and translate them into an online context,” he said.

“Extortion is extortion whether you’re extorting someone by threatening to reveal nude photos that you’ve extorted them to provide, or you’re extorting someone through other forms of more traditional blackmail. are.”

Molly Reynolds, a lawyer at Tories LLP in Toronto, said her civil caseload for sexual harassment has increased significantly.

“The demand is huge. It’s a crisis that’s at least 10 years old, and we’re just starting to understand it more broadly across Canada,” he said. do not receive when they report this criminal conduct.”

He said civil court is a better option for adult victims who know their offender.

“You’re more likely to see a law enforcement response if it comes down to child pornography offenses, not just non-consensual distribution offenses or voyeurism,” he said.

“(Children), in some ways, are better served by criminal procedures, while adults, I think, often have to turn to civil procedures.”

Darren Laure, chief training officer at internet safety and digital literacy education company WhiteHatter, said the law has not kept pace with technological advances.

So-called deepfakes, in which an existing photo or video is used to create fake but credible video footage, will create new challenges as extortionists now have the ability to force a person to perform explicit actions, he said. There will be no need.

“The reality is that people are going to take advantage of the technology and sometimes weaponize it. That’s the problem with deep fake. I think deep fake is being weaponized, especially when it comes to Tech was sexually assaulted,” said Lar, a retired Victoria police sergeant.

Reynolds agreed but said she doesn’t think the law will ever “be able to keep up with the technology and the harm it creates.”

“I think there’s a huge role for the courts to interpret what we already have, and allow it to evolve as technological risks evolve. We need to be able to “There is a need for people to take these cases to court, whether criminal or civil, and test the limits,” he said.

Macdonald, along with the Canadian Center for Child Protection, has begun calling for more regulation of social media companies, including Snapchat and Instagram, where the organization has found children are the most harmed.

“It’s an ongoing problem that’s getting worse, and so it really begs the question, what are these companies doing to keep kids safe? It’s incredible that social media platforms are allowing complete adults to be strangers. Allowing any consequences to reach and target our children directly,” he said in a news release Thursday.

Lar said he had been calling for an online regulatory agency similar to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner for years.

“They basically have a blueprint of how to do it,” he said. “We need something similar in our country.”

The federal government is “currently developing an approach to dealing with harmful content online, including the possible creation of a regulatory body,” the Canadian Heritage Department said in a statement.

As part of that process, she said Cultural Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is “currently holding roundtables across Canada to hear from victims of online harm, including children and youth.”

– Briana Charlebois, The Canadian Press