INHOPE | Live-streamed abuse of Minors recap (Part 1)
Events & Campaigns

Live-streamed abuse of Minors recap (Part 1)

At the most recent INHOPE expert insight session our guest speaker special agent Austin Berrier, who is part of the Cyber Crime Division at Homeland Security, shared his professional insights into the rising phenomenon of live-streamed abuse of minors.

Live-streaming is not a new technology and has been around since the late 1990s. However, the start of the pandemic has persistently changed the frequency with which we use live-streaming services. The high increase of child users consequently attracts offenders, who specifically search for platforms with easy access to minors. Especially within the live-stream sector, it remains quite easy for perpetrators to go unnoticed, as there is still a lack of law enforcement engagement in these types of crimes. Additionally, the sheer number of platforms offering live-streaming options and the amount of users makes it easy to "hide in the herd" - Austin Berrier, Special Agent

Even though any platform with live-stream possibilities can become a host of abuse and is not app-specific, there are certain platforms that attract more children and are therefore more likely to be abused.

“We have to look at live-streaming technology through children’s eyes – and think about it the way offenders think about it.” - Austin Berrier, Special Agent

Many children are left unattended with their mobile devices, lacking appropriate knowledge about digital safety and the associated risks. This leads to an overwhelming number of cases in which children produce live-streamed content alone, within the safety of their bedroom or bathroom. Oftentimes, it is little children who are curious about their bodies and sexuality, unaware of the possible gravity of sharing intimate details online.

This is why digital education is an invaluable resource in combating child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Children need to be equipped with all the necessary knowledge to understand the potential consequences of sharing personal information.

However, even children who use live-streaming services for completely different reasons can become victims of abuse. Perpetrators lurk on all kinds of sites including gaming platforms, entertainment media, and educational sites on which children learn or do homework together.

"Just because children’s use of live-stream is innocent does not mean they are immune to being abused" - Austin Berrier, Special Agent

Different law enforcement approaches

There are different ways in which law enforcement can approach cases of live-streamed Child Sexual Abuse (CSA):

Reactive Model

  • Law enforcement reacts to a direct report, usually from a parent or guardian
  • In most cases a lack of evidence quickly hinders investigations. When the perpetrator is proficient with digital technology it becomes almost impossible to track them down.

Proactive Model

  • Law enforcement actively seeks out platforms where Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) is produced and observes and documents offences over a prolonged period.
  • While this approach is effective, it is also incredibly time-consuming and target-driven and therefore not scalable for bigger investigations.

Preventative Model

  • Law enforcement and the tech industry work together to share intelligence to design platforms and tools for child protection.
  • Organisations detect patterns on their platforms and develop strategies to prevent them.
  • The goal is to make these platforms inhospitable for offenders.

Live-streamed abuse is one of the fastest-growing types of CSA content, but because live-streaming in most countries does not require traditional file transfer, which is usually used to pursue CSAM offences, it is incredibly difficult to track. We need to treat this issue with the seriousness it requires and can therefore not rely on reactive or proactive law enforcement strategies, but need to focus all of our attention and resources on prevention. The preventative approach is by far the most desirable but does not come without challenges. Big Tech remains hesitant to introduce strict digital security practices on their platforms because they fear it might deter users. As long as technology companies are not prioritising children's safety by developing platforms that are inhospitable for offenders, there is no doubt that any site with live-stream capacity will at some point be used for illegal purposes.

"If a platform has a live-stream capability, it is only a matter of time before it is used to victimize a child" - Austin Berrier, Special Agent

This, however, should not discourage but motivate us to keep educating, keep deploying solutions, and create platforms that are forbidding towards offenders.

To learn more about the specific steps you and others can take to prevent live-streamed CSA, read part two of this article: Live-streamed abuse of Minors - What can be done?

Live-streamed abuse of Minors recap (Part 1)

Just because children’s use of live-stream is innocent does not mean they are immune to being abused.