Through the dingy door of a ramshackle building, the Philippine police pulled five young victims forced by a local man to perform live sex acts for pedophiles over the internet. These children, the oldest 16, while the youngest barely more than a baby, are part of a burgeoning industry alongside the advent of cheap and widespread technology in the 21st century.
The Philippines alone receives more than 3,000 reports each month from outside countries who try to maintain a count on the number of children brought into cybersex trafficking dens, but it is suspected that this number still vastly underestimates the full scope of the issue. “A laptop, a webcam, an internet connection, and a money remittance service” is all traffickers really need in order to open and run a cybersex den.
This low cost of entry brings both traffickers and those looking to consume their pornographic product into the industry in droves. It is estimated that 800,000 unique individuals frequent the most popular websites for purchase and download of child pornography. The traffickers themselves are also afforded greater access to materials, and many build databases that contain over 150,000 images and videos of their victims.
The Philippines is particularly vulnerable to cybersex trafficking, in part because even those in the most impoverished regions have some level of English speaking ability. This trait is particularly desirable among members of the trafficking community as it facilitates communications between buyer and consumer, most of whom are not local to the region. The sex acts themselves often will be set up through common messaging and video platforms such as Skype, jumping between providers as needed to remain undetected.
Within the country, the prevalence of cybersex is strongly maintained by a misguided belief that the act is victimless. The Philippines has built up a culture of silence surrounding sex abuse within the family unit. Not only does this keep many victims from speaking out, but in a cyclic way it has led to the justification of marketing sexual materials of relatives online as acceptable. A Filipino family may say, “[w]e don’t touch, we just show,” distinguishing cybersex as a form of abuse separate—and not as bad as—physical abuse. However, it has been shown that cybersex abuse can frequently lead to physical torture over video when requested by a wealthy buyer, and that the younger the child the more severe the abuse.
Philippine Senator Loren Legarda acknowledges that the nation must be more stringent in its enforcement of anti-trafficking laws, which carry a heavy penalty (up to life imprisonment), but that there must also be a global movement to stop cybersex trafficking. For the most part the demand for acts of cybersex comes from developed countries, where punishment for being caught has historically been lax. A string of raids against Philippine cybersex dens have recently been carried out by a multinational police force, but the senator asserts that the problem must be addressed within the borders of the pedophiles’ home countries as well. They must be made to face law enforcement that is as severe as the nature of their crime. The goal is to make abusers aware that they will face harsh consequences if they are caught. Yet, the issue remains: How do we identify these criminals?
Conducting transactions over networks and using payment systems which allow the user to obscure their identity drastically complicate the process of identifying abusers. Whereas in the past, a boots-on-the-ground approach could enable an officer to locate a middleman and bust a den, today everything is hidden online. Currently, major companies such as Microsoft and Facebook work with law enforcement to develop software to identify child sex exploitation, but inconsistency of platform use coupled with the sheer volume of content put out each day has stymied these efforts.
Many traffickers use various accounts to transfer payments internationally without detection. These international banks have been enlisted to identify human traffickers among their clients. By implementing machine learning algorithms, they flag suspicious transactions and read the digital footprint of the account. But even then, the volume of material to sort through remains dauntingly large. The chances of getting a red flag that leads to an arrest are very slim.
A more promising avenue may be the result of turning the same technology traffickers use to obscure their identity back on them. The most common form of payment in cybersex transactions is made in Bitcoin. While Bitcoin garners much attention as a decentralized currency which promotes anonymity in its transactions, it nevertheless does use a ledger to record pending and completed transactions. This ledger, called the mempool, as well as records from the blockchain, are publicly available. Sites which advertise cybersex, such as Backpage, post their ads as soon as payment is received. It is possible to compare the time of Bitcoin transaction recorded in the records to the time the ad on the trafficking site was posted.
Using stylometry, the analysis of writing style to determine authorship, it is possible to identify ads on these sites as belonging to a particular person. In cases where ads for different sex slaves are owned by a single author, it is highly likely that the author is running a trafficking ring. By combining known authorship of an ad to a particular bitcoin transaction associated with that ad, the Bitcoin “wallet” associated with that individual may be identified.
Identifying the “wallet”, effectively like an account number for Bitcoin users, provides crucial identity and location information for abusers involved in human trafficking. Once this strong link has been established, the case may be handed off to law enforcement on the ground, who can move forward on the suspect’s case and apprehend them if needed.
In order to combat the growing tide of cybersex trafficking in the Philippines, it is necessary that agents both within the nation and across the broader global community promote greater awareness of the severity of punishment for the crime. Cybersex trafficking targets some of the most vulnerable individuals in society, and it is certainly not a victimless crime. It must be brought to the attention of these children’s abusers that the internet will not be able to hide them, and that they will be held accountable for their crimes.