Sextortion boom coincides with pandemic shift online as experts sound alarm bells

New data from Statistics Canada suggests that the massive online shift caused by the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a boom in so-called “sextortion scams.”

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

Sextortion occurs when someone threatens to distribute private, often sexually explicit material online if the victim does not comply, usually with a request for money. increase.

The crime began almost a decade ago when Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, committed suicide after posting a video describing being harassed by anonymous cyberbullying using flash cards. At times it attracted national attention. It has been viewed over 14 million times.

The trial of Aydin Covan, a Dutch man who allegedly harassed her, began in June at the BC Supreme Court.

He pleaded not guilty to extortion, harassment, communicating with young people to commit sexual offenses, and possession and distribution of child pornography. He was not charged in Todd’s death.

Closing arguments in the lawsuit were completed earlier this week and the jury is now deliberating.

Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, said the problem had grown exponentially since Todd took her life in October 2012. Told.

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

Police across the country are warning the public about sextortion scams targeting young people.

“Unfortunately, police around the world have seen some of these incidents have a tragic ending, with victims committing suicide,” Nova Scotia RCMP Internet Child Exploitation Unit Cpl. In the release it said: “We urge parents and caregivers to talk to their children about potential dangers and emphasize that they can come to you for help.”

Police-reported extortion cases in Canada have increased nearly 300% over the past decade, but crime has increased significantly during the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada data released Tuesday.

In 2021, there were 194 more incidents involving the distribution of intimate images without consent involving adult or child victims. This represents a 9% increase from the previous year and a 52% increase compared to the average over the last five years.

“These worrying increases are being fueled by social media platforms and other electronic service providers,” said Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, in a news release. “It should be a wake-up call.”, a national tipline for reporting child sexual abuse online, said, “Young people and sometimes concerned about falling prey to aggressive sextortion tactics. “We are receiving an unprecedented amount of reports from parents,” he said. .

Wayne McKay, professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, said the increase could be partially explained by improved awareness and crackdowns on cybercrime, but also suggested that online child sexual abuse is often unreported. is doing.

A survey of 322 sextortion cases received by in July found that 92% involved a boy or young man, where the gender was known.

“The review also showed a new tactic in which victims were sent nude images of their children by someone behind a fake account. claims and threatens to report the victim to the police.Demands for money will soon follow,” the child protection center said in a news release this week.

David Fraser, an internet and privacy attorney at Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said the main reason some young people don’t come forward is because of the potential for their image to be accused of child pornography. He said that it is because he thinks He said this is widely misunderstood, and sometimes even among law enforcement agencies.

“We need to pay close attention to the messages we send to young people to ensure they have a safe place to get help before things escalate,” Fraser said.

He cited a 2001 Canadian Supreme Court decision to make a “personal use” exception to the child pornography statute. Young people create intimate images of themselves as long as they do not depict illicit sexual acts, are intended for personal use only, and were made with the consent of the people depicted in the images have the right

Fraser wants to increase police resources and education on the issue.

“Generally, I have seen a total lack of skill and ability on the part of police to translate existing laws into an online context,” he said.

“Blackmail is blackmail, whether you are extorting someone by threatening to publish nude photos that you have been coerced into, or through other forms of more general intimidation.”

Molly Reynolds, an attorney at Torys LLP in Toronto, said the number of civil cases involving sexual extortion has increased significantly.

“The demand is huge. This was a crisis at least a decade ago and we are just beginning to understand it more broadly across Canada,” she said. “There are still many people who report this criminal activity without getting the attention of the police.”

She said civil court tends to be a better option for adult victims who know the perpetrator.

“You’re more likely to see law enforcement action if you fall under child pornography offenses, not just distribution without consent or voyeurism,” she said.

“I think (children) are, in some ways, better off in criminal proceedings, whereas adults often have to resort to civil proceedings.”

Darren Roll, chief training officer at The White Hatter, an internet safety and digital literacy education company, says the law has not kept up with technological advances.

He said so-called deepfakes, which use existing images and videos to create fake, believable video footage, create new challenges because blackmailers no longer have to coerce blatant acts. .

“The reality is that people are trying to use the goodness of technology and sometimes weaponize it. That is the problem with deepfakes. I am aware that it will,” said Laur, a retired Victorian police sergeant.

Reynolds agreed, but said he believes the law “cannot keep up with technology and the harm it creates.”

“I think the courts have a very big role to play in interpreting what we already have and letting it evolve in the same way that technological risks evolve. We need to make it easier for people to bring these cases to court and allow the boundaries to be tested,” she said.

McDonald’s, along with the Canadian Center for Child Protection, has begun calling for greater regulation of social media companies, including Snapchat and Instagram, where the organization has found most of the harm to children occurs.

“This is an ongoing problem and it is getting worse. So it really begs the question, what are these companies doing to keep children safe? It is unbelievable that adults are allowed to reach out directly and target children with no repercussions,” she said in a news release Thursday.

Laur said he has been calling for years to create an online regulator like Australia’s eSafety Commissioner.

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

The Canadian Heritage Agency said in a statement that the federal government is “currently developing approaches to address harmful content online, including the potential creation of regulatory bodies.” I’m here.

As part of this process, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said, “We are currently conducting roundtables across Canada to hear from victims of online harm, including children and young people.”

– Brieanna Charlebois, Canadian Press

Sextortion boom coincides with pandemic shift online as experts sound alarm bells

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