Sextortion boom coincides with pandemic shifting online, as experts sound alarm

VANCOUVER — The mass shift online caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a boom in so-called “sextortion scams,” new data from Statistics Canada suggests.

VANCOUVER — The mass shift online caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a boom in so-called “sextortion scams,” new data from Statistics Canada suggests.

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

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, occurs when someone threatens to distribute private, often sexually explicit material online if the victim does not comply with their demands, usually for money.

The crime captured national attention nearly a decade ago when Amanda Todd, 15, of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, killed herself after posting a video in which she used flash cards to describe being tormented by an anonymous cyberbully. It has been watched over 14 million times.

The trial of her alleged stalker, Dutch national Aydin Coban, began in British Columbia Supreme Court in June.

He pleaded not guilty to extortion, harassment, communicating with a youth to commit a sexual offense and possessing and distributing child pornography. He has not been charged in connection with Todd’s death.

Closing arguments in the case concluded earlier this week and the jury is now out to deliberate.

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

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

Police across the country have issued warnings to the public about sextortion scams targeting young people.

“Unfortunately, police around the world have tragically seen some of these incidents end with victims taking their own lives,” said Cpl. Mark Sobieraj said in a press release last week. “We urge parents and guardians to speak with children about potential dangers, emphasizing that they may come to you for help.”

Statistics Canada data released Tuesday shows that police-reported cases of extortion in Canada have increased by nearly 300% over the past decade, but crime has increased dramatically during the pandemic.

Incidents of non-consensual distribution of intimate images involving adult or child victims increased by 194 cases in 2021, representing a 9% jump from the previous year and a 52% increase from the previous year. previous five-year average.

“These concerning increases are being facilitated by social media platforms and other electronic service providers,” Canadian Center for Child Protection Executive Director Lianna McDonald said in a news release. “That should be a wake-up call.”, a national online child sexual abuse reporting line, said it has received “an unprecedented volume of reports from young people and sometimes their parents who are concerned about being prey to aggressive sextortion tactics”, which represents approximately 300 cases of online extortion per month. .

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, said the increase could be partly explained by awareness and better monitoring of cybercrime, but noted research also suggests that child sexual abuse in line are often not reported.

A review of 322 sextortion cases received by in July found that where the sex was known, 92% were boys or young men.

“The review also showed an emerging tactic of sending the victim nude images of children of the person behind the fake account. The abuser will then threaten to report the victim to the police, claiming they are in possession of child sexual abuse material. the money will follow immediately,” the child protection center said in a news release this week.

David Fraser, an internet and privacy lawyer with Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said one of the main reasons some young people might not come forward is that they think that they could be charged with child pornography of their own image. He said that’s a common misconception, sometimes even among law enforcement.

“We have to be very careful about the messages we send to young people, just to make sure there are safe places where they can go and get help before things get out of hand,” Fraser said.

He cited a 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that established a “personal use” exception to the child pornography provisions. He said young people have the right to create intimate images of themselves as long as they do not depict illegal sexual activity, are only held for private use and are created with the consent of the persons in the image.

Fraser would like to see more police resources and education on the issue.

“I have generally seen a lack of skill and competence on the part of the police to take existing laws and translate them into the online context,” he said.

“Extortion is extortion, whether you extort someone by threatening to release nude photos you have extorted from them, or extort someone through other more conventional forms of blackmail.”

Molly Reynolds, a lawyer at Torys LLP in Toronto, said her number of civil sexual extortion cases had increased significantly.

“The demand is huge. It’s a crisis that’s been going on for at least 10 years, and we’re only just beginning to understand it more broadly across Canada,” she said. “There are still a lot of people who don’t really come to the attention of the police when they report this. criminal conduct. »

She said civil courts tend to be a better option for adult victims who know their abuser.

“You’re more likely to see a law enforcement response if it can fall into child pornography offenses, not just non-consensual distribution or voyeurism offenses,” she said.

“(Children) are, in some respects, better served by the criminal process, whereas adults, I think, more often have to turn to the civil process.”

Darren Laur, director of training at White Hatter, an internet safety and digital literacy education company, said the law has not kept up with advances in technology.

He said so-called deep fakes, in which an existing image or video is used to create fake but believable video footage, will create new challenges because extortionists will no longer need to coerce someone into performing acts. explicit.

“The reality is that people will use the benefits of technology and sometimes weaponize it. That’s the problem with deep fakes. I sense deep fakes are going to be weaponized, especially when it comes to technology-facilitated sexual abuse,” said Laur, who is a retired police sergeant from Victoria.

Reynolds agreed, but said she doesn’t think the law will ever be able to “keep up with technology and the damage it can create.”

“I think the courts have a very big role to play in interpreting what we already have and allowing it to evolve as technological risks evolve. We need to be able to make it easier for people to grasp these cases in court, whether criminal or civil, and to test the limits,” she said.

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

“This is an ongoing problem that is getting worse, and so it really begs the question of what are these companies doing to keep children safe? It is incredulous that social media platforms allow complete strangers adults to directly reach out and target our children without any consequences,” she said in a press release on Thursday.

Laur said he has been calling for the creation of an online regulatory agency, like Australia’s e-Security Commissioner, for years.

“They basically have the plan on how to do it,” he said. “We need something similar here in our country.”

The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement that the federal government is “currently developing an approach to address harmful content online, which includes the potential creation of a regulatory body.”

As part of that process, he said Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is “currently organizing roundtables across Canada to hear from victims of online harm, including children and youth.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 6, 2022.

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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