Children exploited via digital encryption

The expansion of digital devices to allow people encrypt their communications and hide their identity is fuelling the trade in online child sexual exploitation, the EU police agency has said.

Europol said the spread of sophisticated online tools and increasing “camaraderie” among abusers is a “worrying trend”.

In its 2016 Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment, the agency said research indicates the average age of victims is falling and that the imagery is becoming more violent.

Europol said the trade in child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) is one of the internet’s “most damaging and abhorrent aspects”.

The report says abusers employ a range of strategies to manipulate young people online, including coercion, through threats and intimidation, but also “deceptive strategies” such as impersonation, hacking, or the theft of the child’s image.

Europol said the exploitation can be for sexual purposes and/or financial gain, and that there are usually three phases:

  • Phase 1 involves grooming the child or impersonating another in order to gain their trust;
  • Phase 2 involves exploiting the child’s vulnerabilities to obtain a photo or video of a sexual nature;
  • With sexually driven extortion, phase 3 involves demanding more photos/ videos, commonly of an even more explicit nature. There can additionally be requests to involve a third person, such as a sibling or friend, and to have offline meetings for sex;
  • With financially driven extortion, phase 3 involves demanding money from the child to prevent further dissemination.

“Both content and financially driven extortion is based on the threat to disclose the images on the internet and/or send it directly to family, friends, school, etc,” states the report.

“Some research suggests that around 45% of offenders carry out their threats.”

The report says other studies indicate that 18% of self-generated indecent material is distributed further online.

It says there were “growing levels of complaints” from parents about people attempting to obtain CSEM from their children.

“There can be serious consequences for victims of this type of crime, including long-term psychological damage and an elevated risk of self-harm, including suicide or suicide attempts,” it states.

The report says the expansion of user-friendly tools that provide anonymity and encryption mean that an increasing number of offenders are able to access, download, and trade CSEM more securely.

It says there is “knowledge sharing among offenders” and that sophisticated tools to protect the user and hide material securely are now “becoming the norm”.

The report states: “This mutual support and camaraderie is a worrying trend.”

For more on internet safety for children, see, or


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