Content warning: Contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
When agents from the Philippines National Bureau of Investigations stormed into his uncle’s house, Malone (not his real name) prayed that his ordeal was finally over.
He was just 11 years old, and for two years he and his sister had been sexually abused by their uncle at the request of men overseas, who paid to watch it happen live over the internet.
“It all started when I was eight or nine years old. My uncle asked me to run errands for him,” Malone said.
“I went to his house … he asked me to take off my clothes. I wasn’t aware that there were cameras and computers set up.”
He asked me to take off my clothes. I wasn’t aware that there were cameras and computers set up.
With the rise in video-enabled technology, the live streaming of sexual abuse of children to paedophiles around the world is a worsening problem, and the Philippines has emerged as the global epicentre.
“It happened more than once, and it became repetitive,” Malone said of the abuse by his uncle.
“Then one time he threatened me with a gun and told me I can’t tell anyone what happened. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.”
Malone is a survivor of online sexual exploitation. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandes
Malone doesn’t know who the men were that paid to watch his abuse, or where in the world they watched from. But he says it was the discovery of the crime by police overseas that led to his rescue in the Philippines.
“When we were rescued, that’s when I found out our pictures were already seen in other countries online. That’s how we were rescued”.
Malone’s uncle has since died, but his aunty remains in jail awaiting trial for her role in the alleged abuse of several children.
In the Philippines, facilitators of live-streamed child exploitation are often related to the victim, either their biological parents or a close relative. The country has widespread, inexpensive access to the internet, well-established international money transfer systems, and English is widely spoken.
The connections between local facilitators and offenders overseas are purely financial, and likely driven by poverty.
Samson Inocencio is the Regional Vice President of the International Justice Mission’s Global Programs Against OSEC (Online Sexual Exploitation of Children).
“Online sexual exploitation of children usually happens with three parties involved: the sex offender who is usually located in a country like Australia, the US or Europe. And the local trafficker here in the Philippines, who has access to the child, the victim,” he said.
Offenders typically don’t use the dark web. Instead, the crimes often occur in private messages on widely available video-chat platforms, including Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Samson Inocencio says online sexual exploitation of children increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandes
“During the pandemic, the online sexual exploitation of children has even increased because of the proximity of the local traffickers with the victims, in their households or communities, because of lockdowns,” Mr Inocencio said.
“And of course, more people were at home, on the internet, at the same time in Australia.”
Australian authorities cracking down
Typically, abuse networks in the Philippines are uncovered only after child sexual exploitation material is discovered in other countries.
According to IJM research, the Philippines receives eight times as many referrals for online child sexual exploitation material from international police bureaus than any other country. Nearly one-in-five reports in the Philippines involved an offender in Australia, which shares a similar time zone.
Recognising the global nature of the problem, the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center (PICACC) was founded in February 2019. The PICACC unites the Australian Federal Police (AFP), UK National Crime Agency and IJM with the Philippines’ National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation.
“What usually happens is that offenders are identified and investigated in Australia,” said Manila-based AFP Liaison Officer Daisie Beckensall.
AFP Liaison Officer Daisie Beckensall is based in the Philippines. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandes
“When there is evidence uncovered from their electronic devices of Philippines facilitators and or victims, that’s when the referral gets sent through to our office and then through to PICACC. That gets sent to field units across the Philippines, and they conduct their own investigations.”
Ms Beckensall says intelligence referred to the Philippines from Australia has led directly to the arrest of 43 facilitators and the rescue of 165 children in the Philippines since 2019.
In her experience, Australian men who prey on children online take a different approach when looking for Filipino children.
“They get Filipino children by speaking to the adults [in social media forums]. I don’t see an Australian offender chatting to a Filipino child to do live sexual abuse. It’s Australian men speaking to Filipino women who have access to children,” she said.
It’s Australian men speaking to Filipino women who have access to children.
Daisie Beckensall, AFP agent
In 2021, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) analysed chat logs from seven offenders who watched and directed 145 instances of sexual abuse of 74 children via live stream. The study was unique, in that it revealed the brutality of the abuse ordered by Australian offenders, which might otherwise never be known.
“It’s different to other research that we do where we interview offenders and ask them about their offending because in this study, the offenders don’t know they’re being observed. They’re talking about what they want done to these children very bluntly and openly,” said AIC Principal Research Analyst Sarah Napier.
“The things that I’ve seen them request happen to these children is just awful.”
Five of the seven offenders requested a victim of a specific age, with one offender inquiring about a four-year-old victim.
One of Schapel’s victims is rescued by police in the Philippines. Credit: Supplied: AFP.
The average price paid by offenders in Australia to watch a child being sexually abused was around $51 in February 2021, with offenders occasionally paying more for younger children or more extreme forms of abuse. But this was not always the case. One of the lowest prices paid by an offender in the study was $15 for viewing abuse that involved the sadistic sexual assault of an eight-year-old child.
Ms Napier said the study also revealed the potential risk of offenders finding their online victims in real life.
“There’s no quantitative link, but what we found in the chat logs was that when the men in Australia were negotiating with the facilitators in the Philippines, they were also asking if they could meet the children in person after they viewed the children being abused over the live stream,” she said.
The men in Australia … were also asking if they could meet the children in person.
– Sarah Napier, research analyst
“[The livestream factor] is very different to men who look at images and videos of children being abused. With live streaming of child sexual abuse, they’re in contact with the facilitators. They asked to speak to the children online and they form relationships with these victims and with the facilitators. So there is a much higher risk and we believe that they can actually get access to these children.”
For every offender, there are often multiple victims; on average between four and six, sometimes more than ten. Ninety-six per cent of rescues uncover multiple victims, of which 40 per cent were siblings. The average age of a victim is 11, while the average length of abuse was two years, ranging in length from two months to four years.
Offenders face prosecution for a multitude of state and Commonwealth crimes, including the sexual abuse of a child outside Australia – the maximum penalty for which is imprisonment for 25 years – causing a child under the age of 16 to engage in sexual activity outside of Australia and using a carriage service to access child pornography.
Last month, 68-year-old Adelaide man Ian Ralph Schapel was sentenced to more than 15 years in jail for ordering and directing the sexual abuse of children in the Philippines via live stream.
In February 2020 he returned to Australia after an overseas holiday and was searched at Melbourne airport, where child abuse material was found on his phone and tablet. AFP and SA Police officers from the Joint Anti Child Exploitation Team later executed a warrant on his suburban Adelaide home and seized various items from his home, including multiple storage devices and disks, DVDs, CDs and hard copy images.
One of Schapel’s alleged facilitators is arrested in the Philippines. Credit: Supplied: AFP.
An analysis of the items seized established that on 55 occasions between 9 March 2018 and 31 January 2020 Schapel engaged in ‘live distance child abuse’ where he paid to watch the sexual abuse of several children aged between two and nine years old in real time over the internet.
“The Philippines is known as one of the largest facilitators of this activity, and each call that was conducted by the offender was facilitated by a user in the Philippines. The platform used by the offender was generally the social media platform, Skype,” District Court Judge Paul Cuthbertson said during sentencing.
A forensic accountant analysed Schapel’s money transfers and concluded there were 47 instances where funds were sent to the Philippines. After his arrest in Australia, PICACC was notified. Philippines police launched a raid on two different locations, resulting in the arrest of five local facilitators and the rescue of 15 victims.
“The rescues and arrests are a powerful reminder of why the AFP works closely with partners around the globe, sharing intelligence and the resources necessary to target anyone who preys on children, no matter where in the world they are hiding,” AFP International Command Detective Superintendent Andrew Perkins said.
“We all have the same dedication to protecting children who do not have the means or mechanism to defend themselves.”
Survivors often return to settings where family and community members tolerated or supported the crime without understanding the severity or impacts.
“The Department of Social Welfare and Development in the Philippines, working with NGOs like IJM, look after the kids once they’ve been rescued,” Ms Beckensall said.
“They often go into shelters. Then they would try and look for a next of kin and a safe place to live, before beginning a rehabilitation process.”
Malone and his sister, who are now adults, are being helped by IJM, but their rehabilitation continues.
“I stopped going to school because I felt embarrassed. I was still young then,” Malone said.
“When we were rescued, that was a blessing. My older sister has been traumatised by the incident, but we are overcoming our trauma.”
Malone was rescued after being sexually abused for two years by his uncle. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandes
What are tech companies doing to combat abuse?
Live streaming has proven especially difficult for authorities to investigate because the live stream does not produce the kind of evidence most often used to catch offenders; videos or photos stored on a hard drive. The financial transactions made by offenders to pay for the abuse can also be difficult to track.
“We have to match intelligence with financial transactions. But the difficulty is, how do you actually know the payment is for child abuse material? A lot of these transactions are masked,” Ms Beckensall said.
“AUSTRAC [the Australian Government agency responsible for scrutinising financial transactions] might identify a certain number of Australians that are making payments to people in the Philippines, and the payment description might be ‘schooling, food’. That’s can be indicative of child abuse material, but how do you know that?
“You actually don’t know until you go through the door with a search warrant. And even then, you might not find any [evidence] because you don’t need to save any of these live videos.”
Almost all stakeholders in the Philippines and Australia agree that the problem is not yet well understood and is significantly underreported.
Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says tech companies now need to significantly improve their regulatory practices, after failing to design their products responsibly.
eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant. Source: AAP / MICK TSIKAS
“There’s [a tendency] to move fast and get products out to market first, rather than actually putting the safety of users and their experiences at the core of the design deployment and development experience,” she said.
“There’s [now] a proliferation of these services. WhatsApp can enable video conferencing, you’ve got Teams … you’ve got Skype, you’ve got a whole range of tools that can facilitate this social interaction and this on-demand pay-per-view, child sexual abuse material.”
SBS News contacted Microsoft and Meta, two of the biggest providers of live streaming services. Both companies said they take a zero tolerance to child exploitation and deploy a range of technologies to detect it, even in private messaging.
In a statement provided to SBS News, a spokesperson for Microsoft, which owns and operates Skype and Teams, said “criminals using private video communications to further victimise children is especially pernicious because of the challenges in detecting such activities. As a member of the technology industry, we take our responsibilities very seriously and we work hard to ensure our products and services are free from illegal content and bad actors”.
“Microsoft continues to work with a range of stakeholders to investigate and support efforts to develop tools and techniques which are both privacy protective and highly accurate to root out child sexual abuse material.”
A spokesperson for Meta, which owns and operates WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, said “we have no tolerance for child exploitation on our platforms … We work closely with industry peers, international organisations and local agencies, including the Australian Federal Police and the ACCCE, to keep children safe and bring the perpetrators of these horrific crimes to justice.”
Neither company provided statistics in how many cases of lives streamed abuse they found in Australia in recent years or referred to police for investigation.
Both companies acknowledged that live streaming in private messages presents particular challenges for detection in real-time. SBS News understands that where prevention efforts fail, both providers are researching and deploying new technologies, including photo DNA and hash-based detection.
In 2019, AUSTRAC discovered Westpac allowed paedophiles to use its services to pay for child abuse material in the Philippines, without the bank taking meaningful steps to stop it. Westpac accepted responsibility and said it would close the cross-border payment services named by AUSTRAC. Ms Inman Grant said similarly, tech companies could and should be deploying their own technologies to better regulate their own products.
“There are signals that they can look for just as AUSTRAC did when they were looking at the remittances going to the Philippines, and pulled up Westpac for not enforcing their own laws. Technology companies can do the same thing … and frankly they have the responsibility and duty of care to do something about it and not turn to a blind eye.”
“Products like WhatsApp that are end-to-end encrypted already scan for viruses and malware. [Software] PhotoDNA can be used to scan for known child sexual abuse images, or even grooming language, can be done and has been done in the same way.
“Skype can deploy a simultaneous translator or interpretation service within a conversation. Why can they not use child sexual abuse technology detection? Microsoft has a PhotoDNA cloud service and a video for PhotoDNA service that it provides to others and has been a leader in this area.
“I would love to see them finding creative ways to balance privacy, safety, and security, and use the technologies that they’re developing to make sure that these video conferencing services are safer.”
Ms Inman Grant is hopeful that new legislative tools in Australia, including mandatory industry codes currently being developed and basic online safety expectations, will compel tech companies to take more proactive measures.
“I would describe the kind of transparency we see from the platforms today as selective transparency. This will require much more radical transparency, where we can really assess what technologies are being used to detect child sexual abuse material and on which platforms on the extent to which they’re applying and enforcing their own policies consistently. And so we’re really seeking to lift the lid on what is and is not being done to stop this.”
If you know about a child who is in immediate danger or risk, call 000, Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000, or contact your local police station.
Readers seeking information or support relating to sexual abuse can contact Bravehearts on 1800 272 831 or Blue Knot on 1300 657 380.
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