Big tech must be forced to tackle online child sexual exploitation and grooming
After years of rapid growth, major social media firms have seen their fortunes plummet over recent months, with both Twitter and Facebook suffering large slumps in their share prices after breaking out disappointing new user numbers over the summer. Whether or not privacy issues, the dissemination of fake news or accusations of political bias are turning users away from these platforms, it appears they are heading back down to earth at a fast pace. A major reason for their fall might have something to do with their almost maniacal pursuit of growth at all cost, regardless of the impact this might have on the wellbeing of their users. Just last month, Facebook co-founder Aaron Greenspan told the Telegraph that Mark Zuckerberg had designed the platform to be as addictive as possible, ignoring warnings that lives could be lost as a result of the way in which it is structured.
While it might be a little strong to suggest that Zuckerberg cares little as to whether lives are lost as a result his company’s activities, social media firms in general appear less than willing to invest in measures designed to protect their users from potentially harmful content. While spending billions of dollars on research and development each year in pursuit of the next big tech trend, these companies spend only a fraction of their huge profits on eradicating illegal content from their networks, be it related to drugs, weapons, people smuggling or child sexual exploitation.
Earlier this week, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid delivered a speech in which he told major tech firms such as Microsoft, Google and Twitter they must do more to tackle online child sexual exploitation and grooming, and that he would not be afraid to take action against them if they failed to do so. Noting how online paedophiles have become as determined as terrorists to cover their tracks online, Javid told an audience how predators in Western nations such as Britain are increasingly live-streaming child sex abuse shows for as little as £12 ($15.40), and that the gangs behind this growing industry are offering their customers the option to choose the hair colour and other characteristics of their victims. Javid said that while he has been impressed with the progress large technology firms have made in tackling terrorist material on their platforms, he now wants to see a similar level of commitment when it comes to child sexual exploitation. “I am not just asking for change, I am demanding it,” he said. “How far we legislate will be informed by the action and attitude that industry takes.”
While Javid’s intervention is certainly welcome, it remains to be seen as to whether big tech firms will do more than continue to pay lip service to eradicating child sexual exploitation material and grooming from their networks. Law enforcement agencies across the globe have been complaining about this issue for years, with very little being done on the part of these companies to solve the problem. The fact that surface web platforms are still being used by paedophiles should be a constant source of shame for big tech, which appears reluctant to allocate significant resources to tackling issue, perhaps due to the fact that doing so would not provide an attractive enough return on investment. This is in spite of the fact that evidence suggests the problem is getting worse rather than better.
In April, British child protection charity the NSPCC revealed that Facebook was the most popular platform for paedophiles looking to groom children online. The following month, a report from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works to remove indecent images of children from the web, revealed that minors as young as three were being coerced into live-streaming indecent images of themselves to online predatory paedophiles using social media platforms. In April of last year, a coalition of law enforcement agencies broke up a network of paedophiles involved in the distribution of child sexual exploitation material through dark web platforms and WhatsApp. Elsewhere, Twitter has been criticised for failing to close accounts belonging to self-confessed paedophiles who used their profiles to openly discuss their attraction to children. Many were found to be using profiles pictures that might appeal to youngsters.
While the problem of child sexual exploitation material and grooming on the internet is complex and will likely take some time to resolve, few outside of the industry would argue that big tech is currently doing enough to tackle the issue. While search giant Google unveiled a free artificial intelligence tool to help businesses and organisations identify indecent images of children on the internet after Javid delivered his speech, these types of efforts appear to be a low priority for companies that are in some cases worth more than nation states. The time for threats has passed. Developing technology to identify online groomers will be a major challenge, but lawmakers around the globe could make a start by fining tech firms that fail to take down child sexual exploitation material within hours of it going up, as has been suggested with terrorist content. The sad truth of the matter is that these companies will only allocate the resources required to tackle the problem if they face serious consequences for failing to do so.
Virgin Media customers could face sextortion scams after exposed database links them to porn
Security researchers have revealed that a database left unsecured by UK cable TV and telephone company Virgin Media contained information linking some of its customers to adult and gore-related websites.
Cyber security firm TurgenSec said earlier this month that the insecure database contained the details of some 900,000 of the firm’s customers, and that this had been accessed on at least one occasion by an unknown user.
Responding to TurgenSec’s findings, Virgin apologised to customers affected and said in a statement that the database contained only “limited contact information”.
“To reassure you, the database did NOT include any passwords or financial details, such as bank account number or credit card information,” the company said.
In a statement on its website, TurgenSec questioned Virgin’s description of the insecure database as containing only “limited contact information”, noting that it did in fact carry information linking customers to “[r]equests to block or unblock various pornographic, gore related and gambling websites, corresponding to full names and addresses”.
The database is also said by TurgenSec to have contained IMEI numbers associated with stolen phones and information relating to subscriptions to Virgin’s services, including “premium” components.
If the database was accessed by hackers, customers whose names were linked to pornographic websites could be targeted by sextortion fraudsters.
TurgenSec said Virgin’s characterisation of the contents of the database as “limited contact information” was “disingenuous”.
“This breach is an important case study in the wider debate of responsible disclosure and how companies should behave to encourage a positive cyber security research culture,” TurgenSec said.
Sextortion fraud involves online scammers contacting victims claiming to be in possession of compromising sexual imagery or film of them, or information linking them to pornographic websites or material.
The scammers then threaten to post the content or information online or send it to friends, relatives and associates of the victim.
Back in January, online security firm vpnMentor revealed that porn cam network PussyCash had exposed the details of thousands of “models” across the globe.
The leak exposed more than 875,000 files, which included photographs of models in which their faces were visible accompanied by personal information including full name, date of birth and passport information.
vpnMentor noted that some of the images that had been exposed in the leak were up to 20 years old, suggesting that some of the models might have left the adult web cam world behind.
ASEAN nations hit by data breaches, ransomware attacks and cryptojacking last year, Interpol says
Southeast Asia experienced “significant” levels of cyber crime in 2019, including major data breaches, crippling ransomware attacks and a huge rise in cryptojacking, according to a new report from Interpol.
In its ASEAN Cyberthreat Assessment 2020, the International law enforcement agency revealed that the region saw an increase in botnet detections and the hosting of Command and Control (C2) servers in the first half of last year.
Interpol also said phishing campaigns increased in both quantity and sophistication, using advanced social engineering techniques.
Data obtained by Interpol’s private partners for the report showed that the region suffered 5% of global business email compromise (BEC) attacks, with Singapore and Malaysia recording the highest BEC cases of all ASEAN countries (54% and 20%, respectively).
Over the first half of last year, Southeast Asia saw a 50% rise in banking malware attacks compared to the whole of 2018, with prominent malware families such as the Emotet16 banking Trojan shifting from banking credential theft to the distribution business.
Elsewhere, the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin resulted in the rise of crypto-ransomware and cryptojacking, the latter of which involves hackers exploiting unsuspecting computer users’ processing power and bandwidth to mine virtual currency after infiltrating their systems using purpose-built malware.
The Interpol ASEAN Cybercrime Operations Desk concluded its report by vowing to enhance cyber crime intelligence for effective responses to cyber crime in the region, strengthen cooperation for joint operations against cyber crime, and develop regional capacity and capabilities to combat cyber crime.
Commenting on the contents of the report, Interpol’s Director of Cyber Crime Craig Jones said: “In today’s highly digitalised world, the sooner countries are aware of a threat, the sooner they can take steps to mitigate the risk and minimise the cyber threats coming from all directions.
“To this end, we encourage law enforcement in all countries to be actively engaged in collective efforts against these threats, particularly through sharing intelligence and the formulation of a joint operation framework to effectively reduce the global impact of cybercrime.”
In January, Interpol teamed up with several Southeast Asian law enforcement agencies to crack down on cryptojacking.
They used intelligence obtained from police and partners in the cyber security industry to identify a global cryptojacking campaign facilitated by hackers in the region through the exploitation of a vulnerability in MikroTik routers.
Interpol’s Operation Goldfish Alpha also sought to raise awareness of what is a relatively unknown crime in the region, and teach local law enforcement agencies how to deal with it effectively.
Irish researchers use network analysis to help Brazilian police identify dark web paedophiles
A team of researchers from Ireland’s University of Limerick is helping police in Brazil disrupt the distribution of indecent images and videos of children on the dark web.
The group of mathematicians led by Dr Bruno da Cunha used network analysis to assess the effectiveness of Operation Darknet, a Brazilian Federal Police operation that targeted one of the largest dark web paedophile networks ever discovered.
The crackdown, which took place between 2014 and 2016, resulted in the identification and arrest of 182 users of the forum, 170 of whom were distributors, and the rescue of six children.
In research published in Nature’s Scientific Reports journal, Da Cunha and his team explain how effective the police operation was at identifying offenders.
While examining this, the researchers identified patterns that could help investigators determine which paedophile offenders to go after when probing similar dark web forums in the future.
In a statement, Dr Pádraig MacCarron, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the analysis, commented: “Network analysis has previously been applied to drug trafficking networks and terrorist networks to identify structural weaknesses and key figures in these illicit networks.
“The dark web network in this study, however, was much more dense – as in there were more connections between users than normal – making it more difficult to breakdown using traditional network methods. It was found that the 60% of those core 766 distributors would need to be removed to completely fragment the network. This makes the network highly robust.”
The collaboration is believed to have been the first between a Brazilian law enforcement agency and Irish mathematicians.
Operation Darknet, which was launched simultaneously across 18 Brazilian states and the federal district of Brasilia, marked the first time investigators outside of the UK and America had been able to crack a dark web paedophile forum.
Suspects detained during the operation were reported at the time to include retired police officers, civil servants, prison guards and youth football club managers.
The indecent material posted on the site by users in Brazil was shared with paedophiles in countries including Portugal, Italy, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela.
Speaking with Vice News when news of the site takedown first emerged, Rafael França, Coordinator of Operation Darknet, said: “This is the first time that the Brazilian police has done an operation like this, seeking targets in the darknet.”
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