CommunityFeature

Online child exploitation investigation leads to hundreds of charges

By Gene Pereira, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

The numbers in their online child exploitation investigation, said Ontario Provincial Police, were “staggering.”

A total of 64 people charged with 34 child victims identified and another 30 children “safeguarded,” meaning removing children from a dangerous position where they could be offended.

Named Project Aquatic, the large-scale 10-day investigation which ran Feb. 19 to 29 of this year, involved 27 police forces across the province, including York Regional Police, identified and arrested numerous people for allegedly making, possessing, and distributing child sexual abuse material.

“Anytime you can identify a child that’s being victimized and get them out of that situation, definitely there’s a good feeling that goes along with that,” said Tim Brown, OPP Det. Sgt. “Or anytime you can hold somebody accountable who has victimized a child, or otherwise been involved with child exploitation on the internet, definitely there’s a level of satisfaction that comes with that.”

While the work and the results were an important win, it unfortunately only begins to scratch the service on a serious issue that is affecting our communities.

“You look at the numbers for 10 days, that’s quite a bit considering the amount of resources we had and all the investigators we had to throw at it,” said Brown. “Certainly, we could do this kind of work every day or every 10 days throughout the year and get similar results.

“It is concerning, and staggering, just the volume of offenders, the amount of children being victimized and the amount of work that (needs) to be done right now.”

Launched in 2006, the Provincial Ice strategy has worked thousands and thousands of investigations and laid over 29,000 charges, while almost 4,000 children have been identified and protected.

Victims can range from as young as infants to the early teens.

According to stats from www.cybertip.ca, over 77 per cent of children between the ages of nine to 17 have access to smartphones.

“It can be difficult for parents,” said Brown. “I know myself, I have teenage kids and they all have phones and they’re all connected to the internet, so I understand the challenges certainly that parents have. You try to find the balance and try to understand exactly where the risks are and how to manage to mitigate those risks.”

Brown adds it’s very important that parents try to be as involved as they can with their kids and what they’re doing on their phones. As well, to leverage resources that are available.

“We keep directing people towards protectchildren.ca, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, because there’s a lot of great resources and tools there to help kids and parents and educators and everyone know as much as they can know,” he said. “To be informed and to try and prevent things like this from happening.”

That job for parents and law enforcement is only becoming more difficult.

“Every advancement in technology provides a new opportunity for people to communicate with each other, which means it’s another opportunity for kids to be online and an opportunity for offenders to interact with kids,” said Brown.  “The advancement in technology is certainly in the mix, and the need and ability of parents and guardians to be aware of what their kids are doing increases with technology.

“I don’t think that’s going to change, it’s certainly the way things have been tracking for some time.”

For members of the OPP’s Project Ice Strategy unit, this isn’t just a community-based problem.

“We really need all members of the community to participate in the solution and that just doesn’t mean kids’ parents and community members,” said Brown. “That’s also internet service providers and electronic service providers and people that run these.

“They also have a responsibility to be aware of what is going on their platforms and to protect kids.”

Offenders aren’t always who we think they are. Of the 64 people who were arrested, the ages varied from a 16-year-old Windsor teen to an 89-year-old Toronto man.

One alleged instance involved a person wanting to meet a child for a sexual purpose. The child they were engaged with was really an undercover officer online.

Another person arrested allegedly had some 21 terabytes of data containing child sexual abuse material on several devices and hard drives.

“It’s always the way it is,” said Brown. “It doesn’t really matter what the demographic is, it doesn’t pick on a specific demographic. It can be anybody regardless of age, gender, race. It doesn’t matter where you live, we see offenders from all walks of life.”

In all, police across the province participating in Project Aquarius laid 348 charges and seized 607 devices. People from Vaughan, Newmarket and Richmond Hill were also among those charged.

A majority of the charges were for child pornography, accessing child pornography, making available child pornography, making child pornography and distribution of child pornography.

Brown said, from a law enforcement perspective, we’re not going to enforce our way out of this problem.

“We’re obviously going to continue to do everything we possibly can to identify as many kids and bring as many offenders to justice as we can,” he said. “Again, we encourage the public to get themselves educated, and again direct you to the Canadian Centre For Child Protection at protectchildren.ca, and get into those resources that we’re very, very lucky in Canada to have.”

Still more needs to be done, Brown said. On the legislative front, government officials need to look at this problem seriously and consider what needs to be done in order to allow investigators to be able to get to the kids and rescue the kids in the most effective and efficient manner.

“And the private sector, mentioning the internet service providers and electronic service providers, they need to continue to take responsibility for what’s going on their platforms, and we’d encourage them to do that as much as possible,” he added.

 

Photo: OPP Det. Sgt. Tim Brown talks to media about Project Aquatic, a large-scale 10-day online child exploitation investigation which ran Feb. 19 to 29 of this year and involved 27 police forces across the province, including York Regional Police. (OPP photo)

 

 

 

 

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