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A UN convention should not be required to force internet giants to act on child abuse material

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As the globe’s super-rich and political elite gather for their annual get together at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos, many observers look on aghast, feeling distinctly uneasy about what a terrible waste of time and resources the whole thing is. Rather than being an opportunity for world leaders to debate what they should be doing to help solve some of more pressing problems the planet is facing, the forum is in reality little more than a major networking opportunity for those fortunate enough to be able to afford a ticket. In many cases, attendees only show up to the conference to raise their profiles or boast to the well-connected about the important work they are doing.

On exceptionally rare occasion, somebody attending the conference will seek to use it to promote an idea that really could benefit tens of thousands of people. And so it was this morning, when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi used an opinion piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph to announce that he would take the event as an opportunity to demand that world leaders adopt a legally-binding UN convention against online child sexual abuse and pornography.

Explaining how the online child abuse industry has grown to be worth some $8 billion a year, Satyarthi claimed that “blocking child porn websites is just a quick-fix solution”, while at the same time warning that paedophiles are now able to access child abuse material online with near impunity. He told readers that the convention would focus on the prevention of all forms of online child sexual abuse, and would be backed by a new global task force that would offer victims “holistic support”. Satyarthi’s convention would also seek to help nations work towards creating a uniform legal regime for tackling online sexual abuse of children, and uniformity “in standards and efficiency of global law enforcement response”.

While Satyarthi’s proposed convention as laid out in his Telegraph article sounds entirely commendable, it barely mentions the role internet companies should play in stamping out child abuse content online. It is of course vital to ensure that victims of online child sexual exploitation are provided with as much help and support as can be made available, but so long as it remains technologically possible to disseminate this type of content so easily, there will most likely always be an audience for it, and those who are willing to produce it. As such, the first step towards eliminating child abuse material from the internet should involve going after those who facilitate it – internet and social media companies.

It has been pointed out for many years now that internet firms are amazingly skilled at developing innovative new technology that stands to make them a lot of money, but seem less adept at creating new solutions to tackle problems such as child abuse material online that might not be so profitable. Every now and then a company such as Google will unveil a new tool or initiative that promises to help deal with the issue, but by and large, little progress is being made. This is because there is still no real incentive for technology firms to take action, as is routinely evidenced by a steady stream of revelations relating to paedophiles using online tools to access child abuse material.

Earlier this month, an investigation conducted by US magazine the Atlantic revealed that paedophiles are using Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform Instagram to distribute Dropbox links to child pornography. Members of the suspected online paedophile ring were said to be setting up anonymous Instagram accounts and then sending blank posts with captions asking users to direct message them for Dropbox links to child abuse material. Elsewhere, a separate investigation commissioned by Tech Crunch found that Microsoft’s Bing search engine was helping paedophiles locate child pornography. Meanwhile, abusers are still routinely able to access streams of children being abused in live sex shows, many of which are filmed in developing countries where child protection laws might not be as strong as they are in the West.

As has been suggested previously with terrorist content, governments across the globe should introduce meaningful fines for internet and social media companies who allow their services to be used to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children. While doing so will not eliminate child abuse material from the internet overnight, we must surely look to compel technology companies to fulfil their moral responsibility of ensuring children are safe online before moving forward. Satyarthi’s proposed UN convention sounds like it would be a welcome step in the right direction, but planning any  other action while major internet companies’ products are still routinely being used by paedophiles seems like putting the cart before the horse. The quicker we realise these firms will need to be forced to act, the better.

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How phone fraudsters are scamming people while pretending to be government officials

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Law enforcement agencies and anti-fraud bodies across the globe spend a great deal of time and effort attempting to educate members of the public about phone fraud. Despite this, incidents involving consumers being scammed in these types of plots remain relatively high, even though people are routinely warned not to hand over any personal or financial information when they are cold called. In the majority of cases, anybody who deals with their finances online or uses telephone banking services will have come across multiple warnings regarding the potential perils of inadvertently handing over their passwords or agreeing with a cold caller to have money paid into a holding account in the event of an alleged fraud. Consequently, it can sometimes be difficult to have sympathy for people who allow themselves to be conned in these circumstances. It can be a different story however when a fraudster calls up pretending to be from a government agency.

The majority of people will have had at least some experience of dealing with the financial institutions with which they have relationships over the phone, often to the degree that they would be able to tell if something were amiss if they were called by a fraudster pretending to be from any such firm. Conversely, far fewer members of the public are used to routinely dealing with government agencies that might have reason to contact them, and would likely be less than familiar with what to expect from a call from somebody purporting to be a public official. This is a fact that phone fraudsters are able to take full advantage of.

At the beginning of this month, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed that complaints to its Consumer Sentinel Network about government imposter scams reached record levels this spring. The consumer protection agency noted an increase in the number of phone scams that involved fraudsters pretending to be from official agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service or some other government department. In May alone, the FTC said it received around 46,600 complaints relating to this type of fraud, and noted that some victims are being threatened with arrest if they refuse to hand over fictitious back-tax payments. In some cases, fraudsters are using sophisticated “number spoofing” technology that makes it look to victims as though they are calling from official government phone lines. Some scammers are even demanding that victims hand over their payment in the form of gift cards, which the FTC said should be the perfect giveaway that a fraud is taking place.

Meanwhile in the UK, the BBC last week revealed that organised scammers are taking advantage of loopholes in the British government’s new Universal Credit welfare system to profit from plunging jobless people into debt. The fraudsters approach unemployed people while pretending to be government workers and offer to help them apply for welfare benefits. After taking down their personal and banking information, the scammers apply for emergency loans in the names of their victims, taking the money and leaving the benefit claimants they target laden with the subsequent debt. The BBC found that the criminal networks behind the scam are using social media to attract victims, setting up Facebook pages with titles such as Gov Grants Same Day, Same Day Grant, Discretionary Budgeting Grant and Same Day Grant Payment. In a separate scam, fraudsters are contacting UK taxpayers by phone and threatening them with legal action or even jail if they fail to hand over on-the-spot fines of many thousands of pounds.

Chinese nationals are routinely targeted in these types of scams, with organised criminal networks operating illegal call centres in multiple locations around the world dedicated to contacting potential victims who originate from China. In some cases, these gangs have been known to call people they have already targeted in past scams while posing as police officers in order to convince them to hand over more money under the pretence that a payment is required before an investigation into the previous fraud can be launched. Just this week, police in Australia issued a warning about a telephone fraud conspiracy targeting the country’s Chinese community, particularly international students. In several “complex social engineering fraud and telephone scams”, the criminal networks behind these extortion plots call potential victims pretending to be from a range of official agencies. In one particularly sad example of the way phone fraudsters target Chinese nationals, it was reported back in 2016 that a prospective university student from Shandong province had died of a heart attack after she was conned out of her tuition fees. Fraudsters contacted the 18-year-old pretending to be from the “education ministry” and convinced her to transfer the money to a bank account under their control.

In many cases, people who fall victim to scams such as these will stand little chance of getting their money back, leaving them facing significant financial hardship. The sad reality of the matter is though, that while law enforcement agencies do all they can to raise awareness of this type of phone fraud, the scammers who perpetrate it will  continue to profit all the while they are able to find vulnerable victims who fear getting into any type of trouble with authority.

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Why organised criminal networks are moving into anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs

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criminal networks are moving into anabolic steroids

An extraordinary number of people these days put an inordinate amount of time, money and effort into the way they look. In many cases, it would seem, they do so largely on account of worries over how they might appear to their followers on social media. Evidence suggests that a growing number of these image-obsessed individuals are increasingly turning to anabolic steroids and other cosmetic drugs such as fat-burning pills and tanning injections in order to achieve the appearance they desire, despite the huge amount of harm these substances can cause. Alarmingly, use of anabolic steroids has been rising in countries such as the UK for several years, with one study published in 2018 revealing that a million Britons had taken them solely to enhance their appearance rather than their sporting performance.

Similar patterns have been noted in Australia in recent years, while in the US, it has been reported that steroid abuse has been becoming more of a problem among teenagers. Although often associated with young men who are keen to bulk up, Scottish experts cautioned back in 2017 that middle-aged men were increasingly turning to the drugs in a bid to make themselves look younger, in spite of the potential health risks.

As anabolic steroids are of limited medical use and are typically only available on prescription in most countries, the majority of people who wish to take them must get hold of them illegally, which has led to the illicit trade in such drugs becoming more attractive to organised criminal networks operating in numerous countries. The extent to which crime gangs have become involved in the sports doping market was revealed earlier this week when Europol announced that an operation it led had been responsible for the disruption of 17 organised crime networks involved in the production and trafficking of counterfeit and smuggled medicines such as steroids.

Operation Viribus, which involved law enforcement agencies from 33 countries, resulted in the location and shutdown of nine illicit doping production laboratories, the seizure of almost 24 tonnes of raw steroid powder, and the arrest of 234 suspects. Europol said intelligence gathered during the operation showed that organised criminal networks are shipping huge quantities of steroids into EU member states to cater for growing demand, and that smaller players are ordering shipments of the drugs from countries such as China to sell in gyms.

It is not difficult to see why organised crime groups have seen the illicit trade in steroid-like drugs as a golden opportunity. Aside from the apparent growing popularity of such substances, sports doping laboratories are relatively cheap and easy to set up, while the knowledge required to produce these types of drugs in large quantities can be acquired by almost anybody online, regardless of their knowledge of chemistry. On top of this, the penalties for trafficking or distributing anabolic steroids and similar drugs are lighter in many countries than those for dealing in substances such as cocaine and heroin.

Just weeks before the results of Operation Viribus were made public, Europol revealed that most of the counterfeiting that affects member states is carried out by professional criminal organisations, and that these networks were increasingly producing a wider range of fake medicines, including performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids and doping substances. In several EU countries, law enforcement authorities have recently made more than 20 seizures of 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP), a toxic chemical that is sometimes sold as a so-called “fat burner”. Meanwhile back in October of last year, Interpol said anabolic steroids and slimming pills had been among 500 tonnes of fake medicines it had seized during an operation targeting illicit pharmaceuticals in 116 countries.

Only last month, a man from London was convicted for his role in a £40 million ($49.12 million) steroid smuggling conspiracy that was said to have been the largest of its type ever disrupted globally. Gurjaipal Dhillon, 65, who is due to be sentenced later this month, was found guilty of acting as a fixer for the group by arranging dozens of unlicensed shipments of drugs from India into Europe, where they were eventually sold onto body builders on the black market. With reports of smaller but similar conspiracies emerging in countries such as Canada, the US, Israel and Ireland, evidence suggests that organised criminal gangs have become wise to the large amounts of money that can be made by trafficking these drugs, and the relatively light punishment they might face if they are caught doing so.

With modern culture across the globe becoming more image obsessed, and with people seemingly becoming increasingly willing to go to more extreme lengths to achieve the look they believe they must present to the world, it seems likely that the illicit market for steroids and other performance enhancing drugs will only grow over the short to medium term. This expanding market will inevitably continue to attract the attention of both large and small organised criminal groups, which will happily seek to meet the demand for such substances, regardless of the devastating effect they can have on users’ physical and mental health.

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The case of a migrant corpse falling from a Heathrow-bound jet highlights the threat of poor aviation security in developing nations

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poor aviation security in developing countries

Air travel security has changed radically since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the worst terrorist atrocity the world has seen, governments, airlines and aviation authorities across the globe imposed a range of measures intended to make it less likely that extremists could stage a similar attack in the future. Over the years that have passed, nervous regulators have not hesitated to introduce additional security procedures as and when new threats have emerged, such as a ban on travelling with liquids that was swiftly implemented back in 2006 when UK police uncovered a jihadi plot to blow up a transatlantic flight. While these measures appear to have helped prevent a repeat of anything on the scale of 9/11 over the past 18 years, several recent incidents suggest that aviation security is far from as tight as it could or should be, and that luck may also have played role in the fact that the world has not been subjected to another major aviation terrorist spectacular.

On Sunday afternoon, the frozen corpse of a migrant who had hidden in a Kenya Airways plane’s landing gear fell into a residential garden in south London, narrowly missing a man who was sunbathing. Witnesses said that if the migrant’s body had plummeted to earth just a few seconds later, it might have landed on Clapham Common, where there would have been hundreds of people at the time. While the shocking nature of the incident led to it being widely reported in media across the globe, scarce attention has been paid to how the migrant was able to stowaway on the flight, and the questions this raises about security at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, from where the plane departed.

Responding to reports of the migrant’s death, the Kenya Airports Authority, which owns and operates nine civilian airports and airstrips across the country, said it was investigating how the man managed to apparently sneak past customs checks and climb onto the plane before it left for London. On Twitter, the authority said: “We wish to reiterate that safety and security is a priority at our airports and this incident is being treated with the seriousness it deserves.”

The case is the latest of several relatively recent incidents that have highlighted how international aviation security is only as strong as the checks and measures in place at the world’s least secure airports, and how weak spots at these facilities can leave the entire world exposed to major threats. Speaking with the Guardian, aviation expert Philip Baum said the frozen migrant case demonstrates why plane manufactures and airlines should fit heat sensors that can be used to detect stowaways in locations such as aircrafts’ landing gear wells.

But while this would undoubtedly help locate migrants in the event they were able to gain access to a commercial aircraft and hide themselves away undetected, it does nothing to address the fact that it should not be possible for unauthorised individuals to get this far in the first place. If people can bypass airport security and get that close to a plane, heat sensors would be of little use in the event that such a person was able to successfully plant an explosive device.

Alarmingly, the Kenya Airways incident is only the latest in a string of cases in which security at airports in developing nations has been shown to be inadequate. In 2012, a man who was later identified as Mozambique national Jose Matada fell to his death in similar circumstances after stowing away on a plane that had  travelled to London from Luanda in Angola. Three years later, the British government banned direct flights to the UK from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt after a bomb made it past customs inspectors at the resort’s airport and brought down a Russian jet, killing all 224 people on board. Daesh later claimed responsibility for the attack, publishing images of what it said was the explosive device it managed to plant on the doomed aircraft.

In 2016, a planned suicide attack on a flight leaving Mogadishu International Airport in Somalia failed when a laptop in which explosives had been planted blew up prematurely just after the plane had taken off, killing only the suicide attacker. CCTV footage later emerged that was said to show an airport worker handing the laptop to the suicide bomber after he had passed through security checks. The attack was claimed by Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab, suggesting the jihadi organisation may have had an operative working airside at the airport.

While airports in western nations can also be vulnerable to security lapses and infiltration by those with malicious intent, it is hard to ignore the fact that many of the major breaches that have occurred over the course of the past few years have come about as a result of possible failings at installations in developing countries. All of these cases serve to demonstrate that no matter how many additional layers of security are added to the process of taking a commercial flight in the west, it is all but impossible to eliminate the risk that threats made possible by weaknesses in checks and processes at airports in countries such as Egypt, Somalia and Kenya could result in disaster elsewhere.

It is fortunate that nobody on the ground was hurt during the incident in south London on Sunday afternoon, and while it is of course tragic that the migrant who fell from the plane lost his life in such terrible circumstances, attention should now focus on how security failings allowed him to put so many other peoples’ lives in danger.

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