The closure of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of children to spend months at home, prompting online child predators to ramp up their sexual enticement of minors and the posting of child sexual abuse material, according to the latest data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
The number of reports of online child sexual abuse materials reported to the NCMEC during the first six months of this year surged 90 percent to more than 12 million, the center reported. Reports of predators enticing minors went up 93 percent to more than 13,200.
“In the first quarter of 2020, NCMEC became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entice unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material,” John Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division, said in a statement.
According to the center, buyers of commercial sex with children have recently become reluctant to meet in person to engage in the illegal act. It’s unclear if the reluctance is related to the pandemic. Child traffickers have adjusted to this shift in demand to produce subscription-based services that allow buyers to access images and videos of a specific child.
The school closures associated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus, commonly known as the coronavirus, don’t appear to have had an impact on the number of reports of missing children, according to NCMEC. The center nonetheless said it is aware of 273 missing child cases in which the pandemic played a significant role. Some of the children ran away from home due to frustration with the stay-at-home restrictions. Others have run away from group homes for fear of catching the virus.
The COVID-19-related spike in predator activity online followed a year of explosive growth in the number of child sexual abuse materials found online. The Canada-based ARACHNID project, which uses artificial intelligence to identify images of abuse, sent 3.5 million notices to providers hosting the material over the course of a year starting on March 1, 2019, more than double the amount sent in the prior two years. ARACHNID sent more than 600,000 notices between March and July this year.
Child predators are increasingly exploiting the fact that children have access to smartphones. They pose as peers in online games and lure children into producing sexually explicit material. The predators then use the material they collected to extort the children into producing more abuse material by threatening to post the images online.
“There is not only a surge, there is especially a surge in the exploitation of special-needs kids, autistic mostly, who are not receiving the same level of engagement from outsiders and simply don’t understand the danger of their behavior online,” Opal Singleton, the president and CEO of Million Kids, a nonprofit that works to end human trafficking domestically, told The Epoch Times in an email.
The predators frequently use encrypted messaging and browsing software, which severely affects law enforcement’s ability to track and prosecute them. A bill recently introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) would require service providers to assist the Justice Department with accessing encrypted information after a court issues a warrant. Attorney General William Barr strongly backs the bill’s passage.
“While strong encryption provides enormous benefits to society and is undoubtedly necessary for the security and privacy of Americans, end-to-end encryption technology is being abused by child predators, terrorists, drug traffickers, and even hackers to perpetrate their crimes and avoid detection,” Barr said in a statement on June 23.
“Indeed, the danger is particularly great for children who are targeted online for sexual exploitation, especially during this time of coronavirus lockdowns. Survivors of child sexual abuse and their families have pleaded with technology companies to do more to prevent predators from exploiting their platforms to harm children.”