European Cybercrime Centre combats online exploitation through knowledge exchange

Member States need platforms for knowledge exchange to identify perpetrators and reduce online exploitation.

A recent report released by the Internet Watch Foundation shows that UK police are overwhelmed with online child exploitation cases following a surge in reports. The British government is now looking to legislate a new statutory duty of care that will enable regulators to hold social media companies, search engines, file hosting sites and peer to peer messaging services responsible for allowing these crimes to be perpetrated on their platforms.

Innovation News Network spoke to Cathal Delaney, Head of Team AP Twins at Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3), regarding its international role providing support and coordination to Member States in order to help them utilise resources and tackle online abuse of children.

What does the European Cybercrime Centre do to tackle instances of online exploitation?

From an operational perspective our work is to cooperate with the Member States in their efforts to combat this type of crime. This is through a number of different ways such as bringing experts together under different umbrellas, for example the EMPACT [European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats] policy cycle and operations related to particular online platforms.

By bringing the Member States together, the European Cybercrime Centre can facilitate them to work more effectively with one another and add our own value through support that we offer in their investigations, such as forensic support and intelligence analysis – which is a backbone of our work – as well as coordination. It is our role to make sure the Member States get the best out of their investigations by using their resources so that they don’t duplicate efforts.

We look at a wide variety of different online platforms such as social media, different kinds of online sites, and peer to peer sharing sites. Annually, we hold the Victim Identification Task Force (VIDTF), which brings together experts from across Europe and other countries with which we have an operational agreement. They work through visual material in order to try to identify victims – we add our own value through an intelligence angle and try to develop leads.

We hold meetings with social media companies – last year we held a roundtable. The US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is an NGO with a federal mandate in relation to child exploitation and abuse online. It has specific functions such as facilitating meetings between platform providers and law enforcement. We don’t interact with the platforms themselves in an operational way as it is not something that is legally possible for us, but we try to facilitate that and make the best use possible of the legal framework we have to create a working relationship with them.

Another way that we work together with Member States is in a preventive way – rather than looking at it as a crime that needs to be solved. In 2017 we launched the “Say No” campaign – a preventative campaign translated into all of the EU languages that focuses on sexual coercion and extortion. It consists of some short videos whereby a young male and a young female are extorted – one for money and one for additional material. This is a campaign that we developed in house here with the International School of The Hague and this has been very well received across Europe.

With the scope for abuse and exploitation growing due to the prevalence of social media, how high of a priority is tackling exploitation worldwide?

We receive a data flow of information from the NCMEC through law enforcement partners, which is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the US. We deal with this data flow for 18 Member States and in 2017 we had 44,000 reports from them. In 2018 we had 144,000 reports; and indications so far this year suggest there is going to be a considerable increase again. We cannot say for sure whether this is a result of additional and more effective monitoring by platform providers themselves. Most reports come from platform providers who are based in the US, from larger social networking sites right down to smaller ones that are providing chat services. What it does give is an idea of the sheer volume of reports that are coming through to law enforcement which they have to deal with.

Exploitation is a priority within the EMPACT Framework and is recognised as a priority crime area by the European Commission and Parliament; so at the European level it is understood that it is a crime that needs particular attention paying to it. What we do is highlight it as a crime area needing special attention and we illustrate what has been seen by experts over the previous year and what areas need to be paid attention to for the next year. We give Member States the information so they can make decisions at policy level about what resources they can put into their work and what areas they should focus on.

How are experts trained in finding, analysing and understanding exploitation?

Technology is now a vital aspect of investigating exploitation and investigators have to be technology savvy in order to properly investigate online abuse. Governments and police forces must ensure they have staff that are knowledgeable and prepared to undertake this work whilst transferring the skills and knowledge garnered from typical investigations. The dark web also brings a new element of difficulty to some investigations whereby perpetrators of crime are meticulous in hiding online identities.

The experts of the European Cybercrime Centre look at digital material in the same way they would look at a crime scene, keeping in mind that the crime at the centre of this is the abuse of a child and the person at the centre of this is a child. They try to use all of their investigative skills to leverage the clues and the visual details they can find in the images to localise where the images belong to so they can send details over to that country to start an investigation. We use two channels in order to do that: the experts who come here upload material to the International Child Exploitation Database, which is hosted at Interpol – that gives access to the material to investigators; and then the experts are also supported by us in looking for additional intelligence in the images that could lead to a particular identity online, then we may have additional information on that that we can give to them.

Trace an Object is an initiative from which we have received over 23,000 tips. We publish a small piece of an image that relates to an abuse and ask members to identify what they can – it could be packaging, a toy, a furniture or a landscape for example – and ask people what they know about it; where does it come from or where is it likely to be found.

We approach the dark web in the same way as we do with other investigations by supporting Member States. We find a particular platform or community that the investigations need to focus on and we help them advance the intelligence from that to move investigations forward into the community or against particular individuals. This is not as straightforward as it is for the clear net, as these are individuals who are focused on ensuring that they are not locatable, that their IP addresses are anonymous; and that content they are receiving, sending or possessing is encrypted as well. We face a significant challenge in supporting Member States with these investigations into the dark web, but that doesn’t prevent us from providing them with that support and we hope that we will make progress in relation to this.

What do you think about the EU’s policy landscape surrounding exploitation?

Our particular policy framework in relation to the types of crimes we deal with at Europol and which the Commission and the Parliament support are important for the Member States in order to focus on their investigations. EMPACT, the policy framework deployed by the European Cybercrime Centre with the support of the European Commission and Parliament, comes out of the Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment which is issued every four years.

The information comes from various experts, statistical inputs and other sources. The framework puts this all together in an assessment to say how the crimes are viewed, what developments will take place and what Member States should focus on. A multi-annual strategic plan can then be created, and action-based plans can lead Member States in combating different crime types. From our perspective at EUROPOL this is quite a robust and flexible policy framework to help measure the effect that you are having and the result of the actions that you take.

We hugely value the trust that the Member States put in us as an organisation, to enable us to support them in their investigations. Essentially, no matter what framework, whether legal or policy. EUROPOL cannot work without trust from organisations and individuals. This makes our work possible, makes our contribution to investigations useful and outcomes positive in the longer term. We very much value the opportunity to support Member States in their investigations and look forward to doing this for many more years.”

Cathal Delaney

Head of Team AP Twins

The Hague

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