Security Experts:

Europol Calls for Action Against Sextortion

Online sextortion against children is extensive, under-reported, poorly understood, and growing. In response, Europol has simultaneously published a report with recommendations on how to tackle the problem, and launched a 'Say No' awareness campaign.

"Children are increasingly using the online environment to communicate and form relationships and this should be considered as a natural part of their development," explains Steven Wilson, head of Europol's European Cybercrime Centre. However, it is our collective responsibility to educate them on the threats they may experience and also protect them to make the online environment as safe as possible. Where something untoward happens online we should provide clear and effective reporting and support mechanisms so they understand where to turn to for assistance."

The Say No campaign is launched in conjunction with a report (PDF) published Friday, which calls for awareness programs that differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable online communication to be included in school curricula. The difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior (from a legal perspective as opposed to a moral perspective) is part of the problem.

The nature of the problem is also explored using information collected by the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline cybertipline. It shows that female child victims are being blackmailed more significantly for sexually explicit material (84%) compared to their male counterparts (53%). The latter are more commonly targeted for financial gain (32% compared to 2% for female child victims) -- which is a relatively new trend in online child sexual abuse. Another trend is the perpetrator's demand for the targeted child to include other children, such as siblings or peers.

Europol is calling for more academic research into the problem -- starting with a common international nomenclature. "One major limitation of the current capacity to assess the true nature of and successfully combat oSCEC is the lack of a common language and understanding of this phenomenon on the part of different stakeholders, such as legal and judicial systems, law enforcement and the private sector, including the media."

An immediate example is Europol's use of the term oSCEC (the online sexual coercion and extortion of children) for what the media and most people simply term, 'sextortion'. Another related example can be seen in Europe's use of the term 'child abuse' for what America normally calls 'child pornography'. Europol is concerned that the term 'sextortion' can imply "equivalence with the crime affecting adults, and may lead to a failure to recognize more complex and nuanced features of the crime affecting children and its grave consequences for them." A similar argument applies to the use of the term 'child pornography' (always illegal) and the often legal (adult) pornography.

The poor understanding of oSCEC is almost certainly supported by under-reporting by victims. Europol wants to tackle the former by increased research, including in terms of victim and perpetrator characteristics. For example, notes the report, "As the financial victimization of children is a comparatively new trend in online child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE) further empirical work is required to identify particular factors at play that render young people vulnerable to financial exploitation."

It wishes to tackle the latter by increased cooperation between stakeholders (including increased monitoring by platform providers), examining national laws to determine "whether the current legislation can cope with the complexities of oSCEC, whether it is complementary and whether it is sufficient to ensure appropriate prosecution;" and through the launch of the Europol 'Say No' campaign.

Part of the solution will come naturally from better understanding the problem. "The complex and dynamic nature of online unlawful behavior," says the report, "causes shortcomings in the recording of incidents of oSCEC which creates difficulties in assessing the scope of this crime threat."

But there is also a current lack of 'preventive intervention'. Europol's recommendation is for "effective, tailor-made awareness programs to make children and young people aware of acceptable and unacceptable online communication, including the illegality of some online practices, with a particular focus on those in the peer environment. Such programs should be included in school curricula."

The necessary research and the development of the programs that Europol recommends will take time, and in the meantime young children remain at risk. "Protecting our children is one of the highest priorities for law enforcement in Europe and across the world," comments Rob Wainwright, Europol's executive director. "At Europol, we are committed to tackle any threat to our children and bring anyone who harms them to justice."

Europol's Say No campaign aims to deliver immediate help to both existing and potential victims of oSCEC. Drawing on information from the UK NCA CEOP Commands education program, it helps young people to understand what is happening, to stop what is happening, and to report and get help for what has happened.

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.