US: Collaboration Needed to Combat Online Child Exploitation

United States Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams has called for people to come together to protect children from being exploited. 

Speaking yesterday at a Columbia Law School virtual event, Williams said: "Addressing the problem of online child exploitation requires that all of civil society work collaboratively—including law enforcement, non-governmental organizations, private industry, and individual citizens."

Williams warned that abuse carried out in one sphere may result in further abuse occurring in another. 

"Exploitation and abuse that begins online in the virtual world often leads to abuse in the real world. In an all-too-common scenario, a predator can use social media to make contact with a child, spend time grooming her to build trust, and then attempt to meet in person to engage in abuse," said Williams.

She added that sextortion cases, in which predators use social media and other platforms to coerce victims into sharing explicit images of themselves, and then blackmail the victims into paying money, producing more explicit content, or engaging in sexual acts, are on the rise and "occurring in our communities throughout the country on a daily basis."

Last year, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) received 16.9 million reports of suspected abuse that included over 69 million photos, videos, and other files related to child sexual exploitation, said Williams. 

She added that by causing children to become familiar with webcams and spend more time online, often unsupervised, COVID-19 "is making an ongoing crisis worse."

"We are fortunate to have advanced technology that provides us the means to stay connected," said Williams. "However, that same technology also provides predators with pathways into our homes that can be used to target children for sexual exploitation."

Williams then spoke in opposition to the deployment of end-to-end encryption technology in everyday consumer devices and software, arguing that it will make child exploitation harder to detect and report.

"This has real-life consequences," said Williams. "Law enforcement will be less able to act in thousands of cases where they might have otherwise been able to stop the spread of child sexual abuse material, arrest a predator, or rescue a child from abuse."        

The NCMEC has received over 65 million cyber-tips relating to online child exploitation. The organization estimates that more than half of its CyberTipline reports will vanish with end-to-end encryption.  

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