MANILA: Victor Lorenzo has spent much of his life chasing down criminals and helping their victims. For a law enforcer with years of experience, much of what he does is now routine.
Yet there is one type of crime which the veteran chief of the Philippines’ cyber investigation unit has difficulty coming to terms with.
“Every case is shocking,” Lorenzo said, in his office at the Cybercrime Division of the National Bureau of Investigation on Taft Avenue. A shiny figurine of Batman gleams amid piles of documents on his desk. Another busy day. Another suspect. More crimes.
“No matter how hard you try to shield yourself from emotions, you just can't. It’s very painful on our part as a human being whenever we see children performing live in front of a camera.”
Lorenzo was referring to the growing number of child cybersex cases, where paedophiles based overseas pay local traffickers to molest children and live-stream the abuse.
Despite numerous crackdowns, the sophistication and lucrativeness of the cybersex industry continues to enable its proliferation in the Philippines. According to the International Justice Mission (IJM), the number of rescue and arrest operations related to the cybersex trade in the Philippines went up from 17 in 2015 to 51 in the first nine months of 2018. At the same time, the age of the victims is going down. Most of them are 12 years old or younger, and one in ten are boys.
“Girls and boys are forced to perform sex acts on themselves or each other, molested by an adult, or are abused in other degrading ways,” said Sam Inocencio, the national director of IJM Philippines. His agency has helped the country fight cybersex trafficking since 2016, enabling police to detain nearly 100 suspects and rescue more than 370 victims.
“The youngest victim IJM has rescued is a three-month-old baby,” he said.
CHILD CYBERSEX TOURISM
Cybersex trafficking is also known as online sexual exploitation of children – a relatively new crime in the digital age.
As the Internet penetrates more parts of the world, sex predators can gain easier access to more children. They no longer have to physically travel to meet a child for sexual exploitation to occur. Advanced cyber technology enables them to recruit local traffickers, select children, view and direct the long-distance abuse in real time from anywhere in the world, while remaining invisible under the cloak of cyber anonymity.
Cybersex trafficking was first reported by American non-profit organisation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1998. In the Philippines, it was not detected until 2010 after a tip-off from authorities abroad.
Today, the country is “the epicentre” of the live-stream sexual abuse trade and the “number one global source of child pornography”, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Every month, the Philippine Justice Department receives more than 3,000 reports from overseas of possible cybersex trafficking cases.
“The main perpetrators are family members. Many of them use the ‘non-physical contact’ as an excuse, saying the perpetrators don’t touch their child, therefore it’s okay,” said Lotta Sylwander from UNICEF Philippines.
Of course, it’s not correct. It’s not a childlike behaviour to undress in front of an anonymous camera and, on top of that, actually perform sexual activities.
ABUSE BY PARENTS
Locally known as a ‘show’, child cybersex abuse in the Philippines takes place on various platforms – from social networks to dating sites and chat rooms. IJM estimates that in more than 70 per cent of cases, abuse is carried out by traffickers known to the victims. Half of them are the parents of the children themselves.
As victims are young, sex predators often use people the children trust, such as parents, older siblings, relatives and neighbours, to facilitate the exploitation.
At any given moment, an estimated 750,000 adults are seeking to abuse children in some 40,000 public chat rooms worldwide, reported international children’s rights organisation Terre des Hommes, citing data from the United Nations and US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Degrees of abuse vary from posing in front of a camera to having sexual contact with another juvenile – often a sibling – or an adult. As the crime proliferates, the severity of sexual abuse increases.
“We can see a trend where the children get younger and younger and there is more and more torture going on,” Sylwander said.
In the Philippines, child cybersex crime mostly operates as a family business, but there have been incidents showing it can also transform into an organised syndicate.
In 2015, Australian national Peter Scully was arrested in Malaybalay City for trafficking and sexually assaulting Filipino children, with the youngest being an 18-month-old baby girl. Assisted by two Philippine female accomplices, Scully filmed the abuse for his cyber pornography trade catering to an international paedophile ring. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment.
As authorities chase down the criminals, cybersex trafficking migrates. Investigators first noticed its concentration in the central Visayas region before a spread to Mindanao in the south. Recently, incidents have begun to emerge in the north of the country.
On par with its proliferation is the wider use of peer-to-peer (P2P) mobile applications among perpetrators in sharing pornographic content with paedophiles overseas. P2P file sharing allows users to exchange digital resources without going through a central server. As a result, it creates a direct one-to-one connection between local traffickers and sex predators abroad, making the abuse more private and detection more difficult.
“You can directly transmit all those performances with live streaming,” Lorenzo said. “Many P2P applications are commercially available. Some are even free.”
THE DARK WEB AND UGLY SECRETS
Last year, UNICEF stated peer-to-peer file sharing has transformed and expanded the distribution of child pornography on the Internet. The circulation is not only limited to the Surface web – the part of the Internet where the likes of Google, YouTube and Facebook operate – but also on the Deep web, an extensive online territory unindexed by search engines.
Within the Deep web lies the ‘dark web’ – a part of the Internet where criminal activity, child pornography and other illegal content proliferates. This territory is invisible to most users, including law enforcement officers, as access requires special permission or special software.
"It takes some degree of skills to get there and, unfortunately, paedophiles who want to access images of children need to submit a new video or a new picture themselves to show they’re real," said Sylwander.
"Interpol or the police could never do that."
One of the most common types of advertisements on the dark web is for live-streaming sexual abuse, according to the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography and the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. Their 2017 report ‘Cryptocurrency and the BlockChain’ revealed that abusers would schedule and market “live sessions” ahead of time. Customers are required to pre-pay for a link or access code in order to watch the abuse.
“The role of ‘director’ is auctioned off or charged at a significant premium, giving one user the right to ‘control the action’,” the report said.
Driving the proliferation of live-streaming child sexual abuse is the increasing use of encrypted payment systems - cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin, for example, is an accepted payment method in the unregulated sphere of the dark web. As of March 2017, the report said it cost 10 bitcoins - then worth about US$10,000 - to direct live abuse and 1 bitcoin to view it.
“Online sexual abuse of children is a huge business,” Sylwander said. “At least half of all crimes on the dark web are in and around child pornography and child sexual abuse.”
EASY ABUSE, EASY MONEY
Offenders convicted of human trafficking face severe punishment in the Philippines. If they are parents, siblings or guardians of the trafficked persons, the sentence is life imprisonment and a fine of no less than 2 million pesos (US$37,000). Still, local perpetrators – mostly from impoverished communities – are attracted to the lucrative industry.
"There is no fixed price. Sometimes they base it on the age of the victim - from 5,000 pesos (US$92) to 15,000 pesos (US$276) per ‘show’. Each can last 3-4 hours," Lorenzo said.
The younger the performer, the higher the going rate.
Payments are often made through remittance companies, which are abundant in the Philippines. Perpetrators can withdraw money from various locations, making it hard for authorities to trace the money trail. Between 2015 and September this year, the country recorded 136 rescue and arrest operations related to online sexual exploitation of children.
Globally, Interpol’s database has identified more than 14,200 children as victims of child pornography. The number does not include data linked to “numerous unidentified victims”, whose cases are yet to be investigated.
The recorded numbers of cybersex offenders and victims are believed to be just a fraction of the real picture. According to UNICEF, very few perpetrators are convicted and more abuse continues unreported.
“The evidence building can be very difficult, especially in webcam child sex, because the act is often not recorded. As soon as it’s done, it’s over. The only thing you have left is the story the child can tell,” Sylwander said.
To reflect the magnitude of the crime, Amsterdam-based Terre des Hommes developed an Internet avatar in 2013 to identify cybersex predators. Computer engineers created a 10-year-old virtual Filipino girl named Sweetie, who moved and talked like a real human.
As soon as Sweetie joined public chat rooms, she was swarmed by paedophiles. Most of them came from wealthier countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany and Britain. In just two months, Sweetie helped identify 1,000 sex predators from 71 nations. Over the course of ten weeks, 20,172 paedophiles in 19 chat rooms had approached her.
“Sweetie really sounded the alarm. It’s a very big issue and the problem is potentially growing very fast,” said Terre des Hommes’ Asia representative Eric van der Lee.
“People who approached Sweetie is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more people out there who are actually looking for online contact with young children.”
In the Philippines alone, tens of thousands of children are exploited in the long-distance abuse online, according to Terre des Hommes. Unlike most Southeast Asian countries, the island nation has several characteristics that drives the growth of cybersex trafficking. Widespread poverty, accessible Internet, ease of receiving money from overseas and fluency in English make it an attractive target for paedophiles.
CHATBOTS, CYBERTIPS, ARRESTS
As sex predators become smarter in avoiding arrest, law enforcement officers are exploring more ways to stop cybercrime. Chatbots are employed to catch paedophiles, and new technologies are being developed to identify perpetrators as well as their victims with sophisticated image analysis.
In the Philippines, cybertips from overseas are one of the most powerful weapons for local investigators to detect suspects of cybersex trafficking. They also work with banks, money remittance firms and Internet service providers in tracking down the sources of child pornography material.
“The Internet is so vast and that’s why public awareness is a very powerful tool to suppress child pornography,” Lorenzo said, knowing the crime is likely to grow even further.
“Every case is painful but at the same time it strengthens us to the point that it gives us determination to address this issue.”
In the second part of this investigation, Channel NewsAsia explores how children fall victim to such crimes, and how the lucky ones are rescued.