Borderless: A Series on the Global Battle to Protect Children Online
A 17-year-old Michigan boy kills himself after he's financially sextorted online by someone in Nigeria. A 5-year-old Iowa girl is repeatedly re-victimized as images and videos of her being sexually abused are shared online in other countries, including Denmark, Australia and Germany. The sexual exploitation of a 9-year-old North Carolina girl is being live streamed in Brazil.
Children today face dangers not just in this country but from around the world. With the internet, child predators have found new ways to sexually exploit children and share images and videos of this abuse online with little fear of getting caught. As a result, child protection in the United States has become a global challenge that has steadily intensified. As the internet has removed borders and barriers to how U.S. children are sexually abused online, NCMEC has stepped up to meet this challenge and to address the global threat of online child sexual exploitation.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) operates the CyberTipline, the designated place in the U.S. to report suspected online child sexual exploitation. Last year alone, it received a staggering 32 million reports, with more than 93% linked to other countries. With each new emerging online threat, NCMEC has developed innovative ways to help protect and rescue children and bring their abusers to justice, not just in this country but around the world.
"As the largest and most influential child protection organization in the country, NCMEC has evolved over nearly 40 years into an international clearinghouse on missing and exploited children issues," said John Shehan, senior vice president of the Exploited Children Division and International Engagement. "Operating the CyberTipline for the last 25 years and analyzing the vast amount of data from more than 150 million reports, has given NCMEC a unique lens to spot new crime trends, help rescue children and warn the public."
Just recently, NCMEC, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations jointly issued a public safety alert about an alarming spike in children and teens being coerced into sending explicit images online, then extorting them for money. Many of these financial sextortion schemes – impacting at least 3,000 minors, mostly boys, and resulting in more than a dozen suicides – originated outside the U.S., primarily in West African countries such as Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.
Now NCMEC is planning to create a Global Child Sexual Exploitation Policy Platform that would enable the non-profit organization to expand its global reach by sharing data, trend analytics and its unique advocacy with international policymakers, survivors, child-serving professionals, non-profits, the public and the media.
NCMEC is ideally positioned to help reframe how the world looks at child safety globally and already has a solid foundation on which to build a global platform. The nonprofit has forged partnerships with law enforcement in 150 countries and territories that receive CyberTipline reports, including Interpol and Europol. NCMEC staff provide free CyberTipline trainings in other countries, help NGOs in establishing their own hotlines and staying up to date on best practices, and share child safety and prevention material around the world.
Ashley Hennekey, from NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division, explains NCMEC resources to Royal Malaysia Police thanks to our partnership with International Justice Mission (IJM).
The non-profit organization collaborates with dozens of global NGOs, including WeProtect; ECPAT; International Justice Mission (IJM), Internet Watch Foundation; the Canadian Centre for Child Protection; UNICEF and many others. NCMEC is a founding member of INHOPE, a global network of 50 member hotlines across six continents. Shehan, who has been involved with the CyberTipline since its inception, has served on INHOPE's board of directors and was instrumental in the creation of its advisory board.
“In fulfilling its own mission as a clearinghouse on missing and exploited issues, no single nonprofit organization has done more to combat online child sexual exploitation worldwide,” said Denton Howard, executive director of INHOPE. “The CyberTipline has become a model for hotlines around the world.”
The CyberTipline was created in 1998 when child sexual exploitation began moving online, and the public and electronic service providers needed a place to report crimes with no known origin. NCMEC created the CyberTipline and Congress later provided structure around reporting suspected child sexual exploitation to the CyberTipline and created the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces – at least one in each state – to investigate these crimes. When reports come in to the CyberTipline, NCMEC analysts figure out where these crimes are occurring, then send them to the appropriate ICAC or law-enforcement agency overseas for potential investigation.
In the first few years, reports of suspected child sexual exploitation trickled into the CyberTipline, with 4,560 reports received the first year. That number has since exploded, growing exponentially in recent years and now totaling more than 150 million. Most of these reports -
93% - have been linked to users outside the U.S. (CyberTipline reports by country)
Child sexual abuse material (CSAM) – images, videos with audio, even live-streaming of children being sexually abused, including infants – can be downloaded on laptops and other devices across the globe instantly, resulting in re-victimization of these children over and over again. Nearly all CyberTipline reports pertain to CSAM but other crimes against children, including online enticement, sex trafficking and molestation, are also reported to NCMEC.
“On the internet, crimes against children have no borders,” said Yiota Souras, chief legal officer of NCMEC. “Offenders sexually exploit children in the United States and around the world from behind the keyboard of their laptop or phone no matter what country they’re in. Too often legal and legislative efforts to combat online child sexual exploitation are national in scope leading to a patchwork of laws and policies.”
The need for a global policy platform became apparent in late 2020 when NCMEC sounded the alarm about a European Union ePrivacy Directive that would severely restrict tech companies’ ability to use voluntary initiatives to detect, report and remove online CSAM from their platforms. U.S. federal law only requires tech companies to report child sexual abuse online that they know about, not actively search for the abuse. Proactive voluntary efforts by tech companies result in the bulk of CyberTipline reports.
As the ePrivacy Directive neared a vote, NCMEC mobilized the global NGO community with its data-driven analytics, a website specifically devoted to advocating on the issue, direct engagement with individual members of the European Parliament, and a social media campaign. In early 2021, NCMEC and its NGO partners successfully persuaded EU legislators to reach a temporary agreement to resolve this issue.
“NCMEC is uniquely situated to use its case data and trend analysis to drive advocacy and help create consistent global policy and legislation to combat online child sexual exploitation,” said Souras. “By marshaling international efforts to work together to create consistent policies to protect children from online abuse, we can keep children safer.”
Throughout this year, we’ll continue to dive deeper to highlight NCMEC’s international efforts and emerging trends in online child sexual exploitation.