By Assistant Attorney General Beth A. Williams
Over the past few months, our lives have changed dramatically due to COVID-19. We have seen the best of America emerge – our nation’s medical professionals, first responders, and supply chain workers have acted heroically, along with so many others.
Unfortunately, criminals are using this unprecedented situation to exploit the most vulnerable among us. While we protect our families from the pandemic, we must be mindful of other dangers, including the increased risk of online child exploitation.
There has been a staggering rise in online child exploitation in recent years, including the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material and enticement of children for sexual acts. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which operates a centralized reporting system for online child exploitation, received 16.9 million reports of suspected abuse in 2019 alone. Those reports included over 69 million photos, videos, and other files related to child sexual exploitation, many of which involved children younger than 10-years-old.
“Sextortion” cases – where, for example, predators coerce minor victims into sharing explicit images, then blackmail the victims into paying money, producing more explicit content, or engaging in sexual acts – are also on the rise. From 2017 to 2018, the FBI experienced a 242 percent increase in extortion-related complaints and the majority involved sextortion.
Regrettably, it is likely that the circumstances resulting from COVID-19 will contribute to a further increase in child exploitation.
According to UNESCO, school closures related to COVID-19 are impacting over 90 percent of the world’s student population. As a result, more children are online, potentially exposing them to sexual predators who seek out victims on popular apps, websites, and social media platforms.
Many children are also now using webcams – some for the first time – to participate in remote learning and communicate with loved ones. This increased familiarity with sharing personal images online can lull kids into a false sense of comfort.
At the same time, normal childcare has been disrupted – kids are less supervised because parents and guardians must leave for work or spend hours teleworking. And sexual predators have more time to log on, and often rely on anonymity and technology like end-to-end encryption to hide their nefarious activity.
While the specific connections between COVID-19 and child exploitation are difficult to assess, the initial indications are troubling. Law enforcement officials have discovered postings in online forums used by child predators welcoming the opportunity to abuse children who are vulnerable due to the pandemic. And reports of potential exploitation to NCMEC more than doubled from 983,734 in March 2019 to 2,027,520 in March 2020.
Fighting child exploitation is a top priority of the federal government. In January, President Trump signed an Executive Order to coordinate the government’s efforts to prosecute individuals who sexually exploit children online, protect and support victims of child exploitation, and provide prevention education.
The Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General William Barr, stands with its law enforcement partners in the fight against child exploitation. We will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to investigate and prosecute these horrific crimes.
However, the fight to protect our children can only be won if everyone – including the government, industry, and private citizens – remains vigilant.
The Department of Justice has called upon technology companies to help prevent child exploitation, including by cooperating in lawful investigations and adopting the Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, established in collaboration with allies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
Parents and caregivers also have a vital role to play by discussing internet safety with kids, supervising their online presence, and using privacy settings and parental controls. We should be particularly mindful about children’s use of apps and platforms that feature end-to-end encryption, direct messaging, video chats, file uploads, and user anonymity, which are often relied upon by predators to contact children and evade law enforcement. And we must be alert to signs of abuse and report suspected sexual exploitation to the authorities.
For years, television stations aired a public service announcement that asked: “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?” These days, knowing where our children are in the physical world is not enough. We must be equally vigilant about their safety in the virtual world.
Courtesy of Assistant Attorney General Beth A. Williams