Operation Endeavour: The Tip of the Iceberg?

In mid January 2014, reports began emerging of a cybersex ring that had recently been under investigation in the Philippines. Crime agencies across the UK, USA, Australia and the Philippines themselves have been working together since 2012 on a case codenamed Operation Endeavour, and recently results have started to be published in the media.

To date, the operation has seen twenty-nine arrests across twelve countries, with fifteen children identified as targets. The case is still ongoing, and more arrests are expected in the coming weeks. In the midst of a series of recent stories about child abuse both on the internet and offline, including the arrest of Lostprophets’ lead singer Ian Watkins, it may seem reasonable to conclude that the sharing of indecent content depicting children is at an all-time high. But is this true? Have the international legal authorities been seeing more crimes against children than ever before? And what challenges do they face when investigating such cases?

There is no doubt that the sharing of indecent images and videos of children stretches beyond the confines of Operation Endeavour. In a recent press release, the UK’s National Crime Agency confirmed that three other inquiries into the streaming of live child sexual abuse are taking place alongside Endeavour, with 733 suspects currently under investigation around the world.

Whilst the internet has allowed for developments such as live webcam streaming of sex acts with children, the actual acts themselves were happening far before the internet became widely available. But how much has the internet contributed to the sharing of indecent content involving children? It is impossible to say for definite, however in its National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, the US Department of Justice identified a distinct rise in the number of cases being reported:

“Cybertipline reports, sent by electronic service providers and the public to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (“NCMEC”), increased by 69% between 2005 and 2009. Additionally, NCMEC’s Child Victim Identification Program has seen a 432% increase in child pornography movies and files submitted for identification of the children depicted during that same time period. However, precisely quantifying the volume of the child pornography market is impossible; the number of offenders accessing the images and videos and the quantity of images and videos being traded is unknown.”

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LimeCulture is a social enterprise that works with international child protection agencies. Chief Executive Kim Doyle discusses the rise in cases over recent years and the main issues that LimeCulture encounter:

“LimeCulture understands that there has been an increase in cases like this over recent years; the internet has made images of child sexual abuse more widely available.

What we must remember is that the children in these photos or videos are victims of sexual violence and must be identified and appropriately supported to recover from their abuse. In the UK, we are good at understanding the needs of victims – when crimes are reported, or the victims identified, there are resources available to support them. The infrastructure to manage support for victims is quite advanced.

Internationally, however, whilst Limeculture and similar enterprises can work with the NCA and law enforcement agencies to help prevent future cases, the infrastructure internationally needs to be better for victim identification and the protection of children.”

Agencies such as the NCA, social enterprises like LimeCulture and charities internationally are all working together to combat crimes against children around the world. Despite difficulties which arise when the age of consent differs from territory to territory, headway is being made, as the NCA’s Deputy Director of CEOP command, Andy Baker, points out:

“[Operation Endeavour] has identified some extremely dangerous child sexual offenders who believed paying for children to be abused to order was something they could get away with. Being thousands of miles away makes no difference to their guilt. In my mind they are just as responsible for the abuse of these children as the contact abusers overseas.

“Protecting the victims of abuse is our priority and that means attacking every link in the chain, from dismantling the organised groups who are motivated by profit through to targeting their customers.

“This kind of end-to-end operation is only possible when law enforcement agencies work together. The NCA has valuable international partners, including the Philippine National Police and the International Justice Mission (IJM), to not only share information and intelligence, but ensure abused and exploited children are identified and safeguarded from harm”.

And whilst many believe that covering one’s tracks on the internet is easy to do using freely available materials, the measures taken by cybersex initiators tracked down during Operation Endeavour were not enough to allow them to avoid detection. James Dinkins, Executive Associate Director for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations team, elaborates:

“Thanks to this joint operation, children have been rescued from a living nightmare.

“The group responsible for these heinous crimes mistakenly believed that they could use technology to avoid detection, but they were wrong. We will continue to work tirelessly with our international law enforcement partners across jurisdictions and national boundaries to protect children anywhere in the world and bring criminals to justice regardless of where they live.”

With internet service providers, international law enforcement agencies and the major online players all working together to prevent and investigate crimes against children, it seems that the main problem is one of scale. Often agencies simply do not have the manpower available to conduct an investigation promptly, and many cases take years to wrap up. Preventative measures are difficult to build and maintain, but as more people become aware of the prevalence of cybercrime, the ability of the general public to aid in investigations increases. One example of this is the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s smartphone app, which allows members of the public to send in tips about both wanted and unknown child abuse suspects.

In conclusion, it appears that child exploitation and the dissemination of indecent images and videos of children online is a growing problem in today’s world. Technological advancements create new opportunities for the creation and sharing of such content. But with international cooperation from law enforcement agencies, charities, internet agencies and computer forensics professionals, it is possible to identify and help the victims of such crimes, and at times even to prevent them from happening in the first place.

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