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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Column Webcam child sex tourism – a sordid off-shoot of the social media revolution
Law enforcement has not caught up with advances in technology that are giving sexual predators access to vulnerable children, writes Hans Guyt.

ASK ANYONE WHO works in the area of cyber crime prevention to describe their job and you’ll most likely be told that it’s like running to stand still. Just as we all enjoy discovering the benefits that each new wave of digital technology brings us, so too do others enjoy discovering what new criminal capabilities the latest development affords them.

The recent publicity surrounding the release of the video and report on webcam child sex abuse by Dutch children’s rights organisation Terre des Hommes (translated as Earth for Mankind, from Antoine de Saint Exupery’s book, better known as author of The Little Prince) illustrates how we as a society can be taken aback by the uses that digital technology can be put to and the endless resourcefulness of those determined to use it for their own nefarious purposes.

Terre des Hommes have worked in the field of children’s rights for well over 45 years. We work exclusively with local project partners in 174 developing countries, mainly in the fields of education, micro-finance and health. Most projects are focusing on victims of child exploitation, such as child labour, trafficking and child prostitution.

A 21st century phenomenon

Our work over the last decade on child prostitution in Cambodia and the Philippines has thrown up a 21st century phenomenon; namely that paedophiles and sex offenders from developed countries (where they can no longer abuse children without detection), move to developing countries and often set themselves up as charity volunteers, sports instructors, childcare workers and suchlike, always in close proximity to vulnerable children.

Concurrent with this is the burgeoning growth of the industry known as child sex tourism in Asian holiday destinations, affording many paedophiles the opportunity to build “sugar daddy” relationships with local children and their families by bringing gifts and money when they arrive for a “holiday”, and fostering the relationship online at a distance.

However, both child prostitution and child sex tourism are mostly centred in urban environments and this is where webcam child sex tourism (WCST) abuse differs greatly in it’s scope. Any person with an internet connection and webcam can theoretically set up a brothel in their own house or at another location. This literally brings child pornography into anyone’s living room. The paedophile can have sex “on demand”, without leaving his own house.

Research by Terre des Hommes in several locations in the Philippines into participation in webcam child sex tourism (WCST) amongst both families involved in prostitution and families solely engaging in webcam child sex, although a preliminary report, reveals how children are coerced into performing sex acts in their own house by parents. Cases involving up to 5 siblings have been recorded, and children as young as three months. Bestiality and use of household objects have also been noted. Payment for the service is usually made via Western Union or PayPal into an adult (often falsely named) account. It’s easy money for a poverty stricken family living in a shack, and children feel obliged to help the family.

Terre des Hommes research also found that many children engaged in WCST had very skewed feelings towards their parents; the very people that they trust are forcing them to become sexualised far too young and for money. Many of these children will go on to become prostitutes and lady boys.

The law has not caught up with new technology

Law enforcement has not kept up with this sordid off-shoot of the social media revolution. For a perpetrator to be identified and brought to court a child or parent would have to notify the police. There would have to be witnesses willing to testify, which would be difficult to find as many neighbours/villagers are involved in WCST together.

WCST is described as a “cottage industry” in the Philippines. To date, there have been just six prosecutions worldwide for WCST. Figures from a UN watchdog and the FBI indicate that up to 750,000 predators are online at any one moment. The act occurs in “real time”, so it’s over and done with before any preventative or punitive action can be taken. So how best to tackle this crime before it falls under control of criminal gangs (like the multi-billion dollar child pornography “industry”)?

The Terre des Hommes “sting” operation involved researchers creating a computer model (called Sweetie) of a 10-year-old Filipino girl and using her as bait to lure predators online over a 10 week period in the summer.

imageOnline sexual predators solicit  purported 10-year-old Filipino girl ‘Sweetie’, left in a computer-generated image, through a public chat room, right, while actually chatting to a Terre des Hommes researcher in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Image: Peter Dejong/AP/Press Association Images

The operation was carried out from a basement in an Amsterdam warehouse and produced astounding and shocking results. Within minutes of introducing ‘Sweetie’ into regular online chat rooms the requests started coming in in their hundreds. Our researchers used perfectly legal techniques to identify some of these predators (1000 out of 20,000 over 10 weeks), amazed as they were that the predators seemed unconcerned about detection.

The “sting” has drawn a lot of publicity around the issue, including some criticism of Terre des Hommes for attempting to take the law into their own hands, or for basing their findings on a computer model. Rather, Terre des Hommes have managed to produce a tool for law enforcement agencies to use to deter the exponential growth of this practice.

Unadulterated freedom on the internet

Most of the predators online during the 10 week period of the sting are what are referred to as “casual paedophiles” and would be scared off by a police warning sent to their email address. At the moment they are experiencing unadulterated freedom on the internet. A policy of interception and intervention online would in all likelihood prove a more effective deterrent to would-be predators.

The report, Becoming Sweetie: a novel approach stopping the global rise of Webcam Child Sex Tourism, is a compelling but disturbing read. Terre des Hommes is also providing a Toolkit which contains detailed information on the methodology applied in the sting operation to law enforcement agencies, with whom we have good working relationships.

As a Europol spokesman said: ”We believe that criminal investigations using intrusive surveillance measures should be the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement agencies” Touchè. This is exactly what we set out to achieve. Sweetie has already justified her existence.

Hans Guyt is Head of Special Projects and Campaigns at Terre des Hommes. He co-founded Greenpeace in the Netherlands in 1978 after serving six years as a radio officer in the Dutch merchant navy.  Hans lives in Bray, Co Wicklow, with his wife Sally and two children.

Terre des Hommes strives to seek an end to child exploitation and the worst forms of child labour such as child prostitution, hazardous work, trafficking and bonded labour. Though not limited to this particular region, Terre des Hommes’ main efforts to end child sex tourism are focussed on South East Asia.

Read: Three Irish men among those identified in webcam sex crimes sting

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