“The Community” – An international dark web CSAM-website

Jaakko Salovaara 
Master of Social Sciences 
Social worker, Constable Intern 
jaakko.salovaara[@]edu.polamk.fi 

Lue Suomeksi täältä

The amount of CSEM/CSAM being shared online has been on the increase for several years and Europol considers this a strong trend in the foreseeable future as well. Europol has stated that law enforcement must take multi-professional coordinated action in terms of identifying and dismantling dark web-based sites that thrive on child sexual exploitation material. 

My thesis for The Police University College (Tampere, Finland) aims to take a closer look at an international dark web website, “The Community”, which focuses on distributing CSAM and upholds an entire ecosystem revolving around online child sexual abuse. By choosing a qualitative and descriptive case study approach, I am trying to make this secret hive of online predatory behaviour easier to comprehend and approach regardless of one’s previous knowledge on this subject. 

The Community turned out to be a point of contact for thousands of active users. The CSAM shared (pictures, videos) ranged from legal pictures of children all the way to the top of the COPINE-scale with extremely sadistic sexual violence including bestiality and hurtcore. There are different levels of moderators who make sure The Community focuses on CSAM itself and does not stray into unwanted topics such as politics or religion. The laws of supply and demand come to effect as members leave requests for certain kind of material and others aim to provide as requested.  

Accessibility and strongly deviant social norms play a huge role in maintaining The Community’s vitality. In stark contrast to many of its kind, The Community is completely free of charge and the members can view and download CSAM without uploading any material at all. One of the most concerning social norms present in many of The Community’s chat rooms is the way members mentally distance themselves from the consequences of the sexual abuse of children. Sexual abuse of children (and CSAM as a result) is considered as merely introducing children to sex or something that would happen anyway regardless of the demand created by CSAM-oriented websites.  This way of thinking is the exact opposite of Interpol’s phrasing “Real – Not virtual”. 

Although anonymity is a given for most members there are some who choose to gloat in the open instead of lurking in the dark. Providing vast personal information and/or pictures might have at least two different functions. Some may feel that The Community is beyond the reach of law enforcement. Others may feel the need to express their way of life and boost their online identity regardless of the obvious risks involved. The Community also provides several anonymous ways to build up your identity and showcase the things you are most interested in.   

One of the key outcomes of this thesis is that even though effective pre-trial investigation is essential in quality police work it can never surpass the importance of prevention in the fight against online sexual crimes against children. People who choose to view CSAM should be provided with an anonymous and easy to access means of getting help in changing their pattern of behaviour online. This might be particularly important to “early on offenders” who do not have a strong foothold in the world of online offending and are more likely to struggle with inner conflicts regarding the viewing and sharing of CSAM. As with substance abuse related offences, it should be mandatory that police provide offenders an access to evidence-based treatment in CSAM-cases as well.      

Jaakko Salovaara´s thesis (Police University College) ”Lapseen kohdistuvaa seksuaaliväkivaltaa kuvaava materiaali verkossa – kansainvälisen CSAM-sivuston toiminta ja käyttäjät” [Child Sexual Abuse Material Online – The ecosystem and users of an International CSAM-site] will be available via theseus.fi in spring 2021. 

For more current information on this topic please see this guest blog (Dr Salla Huikuri) and The Procsead-project

Child Sexual Abusers Online

Dr. Salla Huikuri
Project manager, researcher
Police University College, Finland salla.huikuri[@]poliisi.fi

For years, Darknet has offered a favorable environment for widespread sexual violence against children. The amount of online child sexual abuse material (CSAM), including pictures, videos, and live streaming, grows exponentially (EUROPOL 2020a), but who are the users of such criminal contents?

Pedophilia is medically defined as persistent and intense sexual attraction to children, which may lead to mere sexual urges or physical abuse of children (American Psychiatric Association 2013; World Health Organization 2018). According to recent research, there are two types of pedophilia: developmental and acquired ones. Developmental pedophilia is a permanent disorder, that corresponds with the psychiatric diagnostic. Acquired pedophilia, in turn, develops later in life and is a neurological condition, caused by amongst others a brain tumor or dementia (Camperio Ciani et al. 2019; Blagden et al. 2018).

Online framework allows another way to distinct between different types of child sexual abusers. “Online pedophiles” commit crimes exclusively on the internet, while “offline pedophiles” use internet to prepare their offences. The latter ones groom children with the purpose of committing physical sexual violence. The use of CSAM is oftentimes justified by fulfilling sexual desires or as an escape from negative feelings, such as lonesomeness, anxiety, or sexual frustration (Henshaw, Ogloff, and Clough 2017; Babchishin et al. 2018).

Not all CSAM users are pedophiles, but for instance persons who use the contents sporadically, impulsively, and out of curiosity or those who are also interested in other obscure contents, such as necrophilia. Internet is used to share CSAM with peers and for grooming children, but also for its production and, thus, financial benefit (Beech et al. 2008). Accordingly, online sexual violence against children is manifold. It covers, amongst others, possession, sharing, and producing of CSAM, grooming, sexual coercion and blackmailing, online prostitution, and live streaming of sexual violence (EUROPOL 2020b).

As is often reported in the news, CSAM users are well connected with each other. They interact in large, international communities in the Darknet, which share similarities with social networks, such as Facebook. The divider, however, is that these groups are based on criminal activities and, by definition, on distrust and the following attempt to remain anonymous.

The members of CSAM users’ Darknet groups have different roles, such as moderators, active conversationalists, those who are exclusively interested in using CSAM, and those who publish, share, and trade CSAM. To become a member of the community, users need to demonstrate activity for instance through participation to a certain amount of conversations. The status of a single user depends on his activity within the community: the more he shares contents or participates within the group, the more he enjoys other members’ respect and admiration.

Online communities of pedophiles come and go. Some of them have existed for years. In addition to criminal activities, members of these groups share the feeling of connectedness in the margin of the surrounding society that strictly condemns their doings. Procsead (PReventing Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse on Darknet)-project of the Police University College, Finland started in the beginning of 2021 and is part of ReDirection-project. It produces new research on the activities of CSAM users’ groups on Darknet as well as their contribution on sexual violence against children.

References:

American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5. Fifth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Babchishin, Kelly M., Hannah L. Merdian, Ross M. Bartels, and Derek Perkins. 2018. ‘Child Sexual Exploitation Materials Offenders: A Review’. European Psychologist 23 (2): 130–43.

Beech, Anthony R., Ian A. Elliott, Astrid Birgden, and Donald Findlater. 2008. ‘The Internet and Child Sexual Offending: A Criminological Review’. Aggression and Violent Behavior 13: 216–28.

Blagden, Nicholas James, Ruth Mann, Stephen Webster, Rachel Lee, and Fiona Williams. 2018. ‘“It’s Not Something I Chose You Know”: Making Sense of Pedophiles’ Sexual Interest in Children and the Impact on Their Psychosexual Identity’. Sexual Abuse 30 (61): 729–54.

Camperio Ciani, Andrea S., Christina Scarpazza, Valeria Covelli, and Umberto Battaglia. 2019. ‘Profiling Acquired Pedophilic Behavior: Retrospective Analysis of 66 Italian Forensic Cases of Pedophilia’. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 67: 1–9.

EUROPOL. 2020a. ‘Exploiting Isolation: Offenders and Victims of Online Child Sexual Abuse During the COVID-19 Pandemic’.

———. 2020b. ‘Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA)’.

Henshaw, Marie, James R. P. Ogloff, and Jonathan A. Clough. 2017. ‘Looking Beyond the Screen: A Critical Review of the Literature on the Online Child Pornography Offender’. Sexual Abuse 29 (5): 416–45.

World Health Organization. 2018. ICD-11, International Classification of Diseases for Mortality and Morbidity Statistics: Reference Guide. Eleventh Revision. WHO.

General parental advice to parents for keeping children safe online may be soon outdated

General parental advice to parents for keeping children safe online may be soon outdated

As Christmas approaches, tech gifts for children such as smartphones, tablets and other Internet-connected devices are becoming increasingly popular and on-demand. Just before the seasonal cheer, in this blog post, I cover some of the risks in introducing or supporting Internet connected devices for children and advice for their safe practice.

Today, it seems, the evolutionary adaptation of the brain has been rapidly outstripped by the advancement of internet technology, which currently progresses at exponentially accelerated speed on the order of years, months, and even days. Mind change, by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, argues that the human brain is a network of neurons that are being shaped, adapted, and evolved by experiences lived and perceived in a given environment. She explains that as the “evolutionary mandate” of the human brain is to adapt and thrive, its response to the cyber world as a new environment leads to a unique personalized state of mind.  This is not to suggest the human brain is incapable of functioning in such environments, only that it functions differently there. Therefore, how do we advise and educate children on how to approach new technologies, now an essential part in education and every-day lives, on an ever-changing landscape?! After all, we have had less than 20 years ourselves as adults to practice our “online intuition” of what does not feel right and what can be dangerous on the Internet of today which is constantly evolving. What is the sudden and aggressive movement that can trigger the “flight or fight” reaction, which platform is the ‘dark alley’ where you should not walk through during the night, who are the strangers that are offering candy, and more importantly how many are they out there and are they lurking in your home network?

Cyber environments are indeed very different from the physical world and its features upon which humans decide how to think and act. Online interaction may be stripped from many social cues that form or alert human behaviour, such as body language, eye contact, sudden movements and so on. The absence of such social cues online can lead to increased cognitive loads and error in judgment in perceiving danger or ill-intent.  Such vulnerabilities have been especially pronounced for children considering their early stages of development. Despite the ability of children to adopt, use, and manoeuvre technology and the Internet for constructive purposes, we should not forget that their decision-making processes while in cyber environments may be altered and hardened.  Higher cognitive load can increase automated information processing, for example, automatically clicking “agree” buttons to consent forms without considering the content, or swiftly granting app permissions to the camera, location etc, without considering the necessity or the risks. At the same time, great many social communication platforms govern content and human interaction through recommendation algorithms and machine learning processes that may privilege efficiency or marketing over social behaviour. Increasingly popular social network practices, such as self-streaming content in a form of seemingly harmless and fun short videos created by children and young adults, can actually provide valuable insight to potential offenders for their victim and their environment. Predators may adopt and simulate similar online interests to children in order to optimize their accounts to be “friend suggested” to children, simulate mutual friends, or create harmful content that can target children and their behaviour.

While tips and advice to parents for child-safe use of technology and online child abuse prevention in the past have been very much concentrated on imperative, clear and general guidance, such as do not give out personal information or do not talk to strangers online, the Internet social culture of today seems to have developed completely counter-intuitive to that advice. Sharing of personal content to strangers is widely encouraged through various social platforms and through many content forms (posts, stories, vlogs, reels, tiktoks, igtv, webcasts, among the many) and even become the essence of any online presence.  Therefore, such general advice for parents of how to keep their children safe online may soon become redundant and outdated, or simply – no longer applicable. In parallel, limiting and monitoring children’s action online would now be either impossible or at least a full-day job considering the switch from physical to online education and leisure time. For these reasons parental advice and safety tips should now be posed beyond media literacy and be informed upon a more personalized approach – on the one hand, tailored to the online interests of the child and on the other, to the latest developments in technology, data and the contemporary online social practices and trends.

Based on this and on my expertise and research in the field I suggest the following 5 approaches for parents and carers:

  1. Inform yourself and children on data literacy and how data may be exposing children to risk. For example,Risky-by-design is a very useful tool developed from 5RightFoundation providing basic information on how social platform design features and data algorithms may be placing your child at risk https://www.riskyby.design/introduction
  2. Talk to the children about which platforms they intend and prefer to use through their devices and in which way. Get yourself familiarised with their preferred platforms data privacy, child safety and digital well-being features, as well as incident report procedure and explore these sections together with your child. 
  3. Work to develop children’s intuition to online dangers. Advise them to always be reserved, cautious, or simply sceptical to any information received or advised by content creators (peers, blogers, vlogers, influencers etc). Remember, the internet social culture today promotes “strangers” and their content, and predators may be exploiting, simulating or adapting these behaviours.
  4. Streaming and posting may be opening the door of your home to the world. Parents, together with children, should be mindful of posting and streaming practices. Be mindful which information such practices may be giving out, from the room background to what kind of chat and contacts the content may be inviting.
  5. Get yourself familiarised with reporting best-practices. Whether children receive harmful content in their feed or harmful contact in their inboxes, you should be prepared to advice children how to report the incident through the platform. You should also be prepared on how to report the content or contact to your local authority for further consideration.

Dr. Manja Nikolovska

Research Fellow @Dawes Centre for Future Crime at UCL, London, UK

PhD in Computer Science on the topic of cyber grooming of children

Email: m.nikolovska@ucl.ac.uk