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Children, Cyber Crime and COVID-19: Cyber Criminals Are Targeting Children During Lockdown

25/08/21
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NSW

In a previous School Governance article, we highlighted the heightened vulnerability of children during the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. With most Australian jurisdictions contending once again with COVID-19 outbreaks, it is important to reconsider this issue and, in particular, the increased risk of cyber criminals exploiting children during lockdown.

 

Lockdowns Are an Opportunity for Online Offending

While technological advancement has provided us with many novel perks, like binge watching the latest seasons of our favourite Netflix series or pretending to be on our phones to avoid people, it has also afforded those seeking to do us harm with a new and more sophisticated means of doing so.

Disturbingly, this is something that child sexual predators have discovered. Since the introduction of the internet, predators have been increasingly mobilising themselves on message boards across the dark web to find new ways to exploit children online. In its 2020 Annual Report the Internet Watch Foundation claims to have removed over 150,000 webpages relating to child sexual abuse last year, compared to only 9,000 a decade ago - an increase of over 1600 per cent!

To worsen matters, the emergence of COVID-19 now appears to have created a perfect storm for online child sexual abuse. Reports have suggested that online offending has risen during the pandemic due to predators taking advantage of children’s increased screen time during lockdowns. The United States National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that instances of online enticement almost doubled from 2019 to 2020 when the pandemic first began. Similarly, WePROTECT Global Alliance (a European/UK/United States alliance) noticed a 200 per cent increase of posts on known child sexual abuse forums in the first few months of last year.

With a reduced capacity for outdoor and social activities, it is unsurprising that children are spending more time online. However, it is not just the amount of time being spent online that is being exploited, but also how that time is being spent. Outside of a school’s online learning platforms, most children are turning to social media platforms and online games as a way of escaping the stresses of family life and social isolation, both of which have become exacerbated by the hardship of lockdown. Social media platforms and online gaming are particularly vulnerable to online predation as online offenders exploit children on these platforms with false promises of friendship and security during these difficult times.

With most children in lockdown navigating the online landscape well before they have developed the necessary skills to manage the exploitative situations that await them there, ensuring they remain safe online has become critical.

 

What Is Being Done to Seek to Stop This?

Some of the world’s biggest tech companies, like Facebook, Google and most recently TikTok, have realised the dangers of their platforms for children and banded together to form the ‘Technology Coalition’, an organisation aimed at combating predatory online behaviour to make the internet safer for children. Recently, these companies have recognised the significant challenges that the expanding technological landscape presents and have renewed their efforts to develop innovative technology to prevent online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

More locally, we have also seen a police crackdown on online offenders in the most recent spate of lockdowns in New South Wales, with an average of one person a week being arrested for online child grooming.

But keeping children safe online during lockdown will require more unique initiatives to help us address this challenge. One such initiative has been an increase in the powers of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner was the world’s first government regulatory agency committed to keeping its citizens, especially children, safe online. Established in 2015, it was originally launched to protect Australian children online by investigating and acting on complaints about cyberbullying directed at children and removing intimate images or videos from certain online platforms, both powers it holds under the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 (Cth).

While the Commissioner’s powers have gradually increased since that time, and their reach has also extended to adults, these powers are set to receive a huge boost with the commencement of the Online Safety Act 2021 (Cth) in January next year. The Commissioner’s powers will be bolstered to include:

  • enabling the Commissioner to require the removal of material from the full range of online services that children are now spending time on such as gaming platforms, content sharing sites and messaging services
  • providing stronger information-gathering powers to uncover anonymous accounts and conduct investigations into harmful online behaviour
  • a strengthened image-based abuse scheme to rapidly address the non-consensual sharing of intimate images
  • issuing take down notices to sites that host harmful online content like child sexual abuse material.

With the Commissioner herself noticing an increase in searches on how to abuse children on the dark web, these new powers will be invaluable when it comes to protecting children online. For example, if a child is lured into a webchat with a predator and exploited so that material is captured and distributed online, the Commissioner could not only refer the matter to police but could also order the hosting provider to remove the material to prevent further stress to the victim. Accordingly, bodies such as this are a powerful tool when it comes to addressing the proliferation of child abuse online.

Helpfully, the Commissioner’s site also provides useful online safety resources for carers and children to help them ensure that children navigate the web safely. These include tips on how to stay safe online during the pandemic.

 

What Can Your School Do?

With students learning remotely during lockdown, it is also important that schools continue to ensure that they are doing their part to keep children safe online. While online supervision and oversight has in the past been predominantly the responsibility of parents and caregivers when a child’s internet use occurs in a private setting, schools may be liable for harm caused to children as a result of online activities if the school provided or otherwise required the use of an internet-enabled device.

Schools should inform students and carers about safe online practices, such as turning on privacy settings, and should make sure that the support services which are normally accessible to children at school, such as counselling and reporting pathways, continue to remain so during the periods when students are learning online.

Schools should also make use of information and services such as those provided by the eSafety Commissioner, for instance, by using their online safety resources, free training programs or reporting services.

Most importantly, schools must ensure that they have robust child safe policies in place, and also that their staff are familiar with these, so that they may protect students both during lockdowns and when they eventually return to their classrooms.

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About the Author

Filip Manganaro

Filip Manganaro is a Legal Research Associate at CompliSpace. He recently completed his law degree at the University of New South Wales.

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