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Online games and apps aimed specifically at children and young people remain fertile hunting ground for paedophiles and predators

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fertile hunting ground for paedophiles and predators

Whether or not children spend too much time staring at smartphones, games console screens, laptops and tablets is one of biggest concerns modern parents face. Part and parcel of this for many is an almost constant worry about the type of material their children might access online. In an attempt to make sure their sons and daughters do not stumble across threats while using the internet, parents are now able to avail themselves of a number of tools that promise to reduce the chances of their children being exposed to online harms, including ISP content filters and tracking software that monitors which sites young people visit on their devices.

In many cases, these types of solutions can lull parents into a false sense of security, creating the illusion that children will be safe while online so long as they are unable to access websites that might carry questionable content. Sadly, predators and paedophiles who target children on the internet have been doing so using connected apps and games aimed exclusively at children and young people for years, many of which typically appear to be quite harmless to parents. Despite this, the tech industry appears to remain at best relaxed about the threat online child abusers pose to their younger users, seemingly content to be doing the bare minimum to address the issue.

Last week, UK child protection charity the NSPCC urged Facebook not to encrypt Messenger accounts belonging to children unless the company could prove that doing so would not expose young people to online predators. The charity argued that it seemed peculiar that the firm would choose to actively introduce new technology that would make it harder for its own staff members and law enforcement agencies to identify instances in which young people might be exposed to online grooming.

Facebook has faced criticism in the past for failing to provide access to messages sent by perpetrators of major terrorist attacks, and could in all likelihood press on with its plans to encrypt Messenger, even though doing so could potentially put children and young people at risk. If the company makes such a decision, it will provide further ammunition to those who argue that big technology firms care little for the fate of children and young people who are groomed on their platforms. It is an argument that is hard not to have some sympathy with, given the fact that these multi-billion-dollar companies appear to be making little progress in the fight against online child sexual exploitation. If anything, the problem appears to be worsening, with regular media reports suggesting that child abusers are able to take advantage of online tools, many of which are aimed exclusively at children, with near impunity.

Back in February, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped lip-sync video app TikTok with a $5.7 million fine after discovering that the company had illegally collected personal information from children, and had made children’s profiles public by default, resulting in some being contained by adults. This came after the Indian government in April ordered Apple and Google to remove the app, which is owned by Chinese technology giant ByteDance, from their app stores over fears it was being used to spread pornographic material. In the UK, an investigation conducted by Sun Online in February revealed that paedophiles were suing TikTok to send sexually explicit messages to children as young as eight. Just months later in May, the Sunday Times reported that police in Britain were investigating three cases of child exploitation a day linked to Snapchat, with investigators warning that paedophiles had been using the app to groom children into sending indecent images of themselves.

Elsewhere, police in both Canada and the UK last year cautioned that Epic Games’ wildly popular third-person multiplayer shooter Fortnite was being used by paedophiles and sextortion scammers to groom children into committing sex acts and sending explicit images of themselves via social media. Highlighting the manner in which predators are able to use these platforms to target victims, the BBC reported in July that a man from Wales had been jailed for 10 years after being convicted of using gaming accounts and nine Facebook profiles to groom boys as young as seven.

But despite the regularity with which these types of stories appear, little seems to change. The big tech firms, with their almost bottomless pockets, seem wholly unable to get to grips with the issue. In the majority of cases, they act only when forced to do so, investing in child protection initiatives solely when ordered to by governments, or when the issue poses a risk of damaging their bottom lines. To many, these companies’ failure to act is nothing short of a betrayal of the children and young people who are targeted by predators online. But while it is certainly the case that all technology firms could do more to address internet child abuse in all its forms, it is particularly egregious that businesses that own online apps and services aimed specifically at children and young people appear so indifferent to the wellbeing and safety of their users.

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Misery, not hedonism, appears to be driving increased drug use among Gen Xers and Boomers

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Over the past few years, numerous surveys have revealed that Millennials and members of Generation Z are less keen on the consumption of illegal drugs and alcohol than their immediate forebears. In fact, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Youth Risk Behaviour Survey showed that alcohol, drug and cigarette consumption have been falling consistently among American teens for at least the past decade. The study also showed that young people in the US are having less sex. Until recently, similar trends were being observed in the UK, where alcohol and drug consumption among young people have also been following a general downward trend for several years now.

Yet despite this, the number of drug-related deaths in both countries is on the rise. Back in August, data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that drug poisoning deaths rose by 16% in 2018. Last August, the CDC said that drug overdoses were estimated to have killed just over 72,280 people in the US in 2017, which represented an increase of some 10% on the previous year. All of this suggests that members of Generation X and Boomers are accounting for a growing proportion of both nations’ problem drug use and drug-related overdose deaths; a trend that appears to be being borne out both statistically and anecdotally.

Back in 2017, the UK’s ONS revealed that people aged between 40 to 49 had the highest rate of drug misuse deaths across England and Wales for the first time ever in 2016. This led to people of that age group being dubbed the “Trainspotting generation” after the Irvine Welsh novel that was popular during their youth. According to ONS researchers, the emerging trend of older people suffering a higher a number of drug overdose deaths was down to the fact that many addicts in the 40 to 49 age group were beginning to lose lengthy battles with substance abuse habits that might have been begun decades ago due to poor physical and mental health.

In a more recent assessment released this August, the ONS said that “people born in the 1960s and 1970s… [were] dying from suicide or drug poisoning in greater numbers than any other generation”. The ONS said that while the reasons for rising drug and suicide deaths in this age group were complex, a high number of those who lost their lives lived in some of the most deprived parts of England.

While it might be easy to conflate drug problems among Boomers and Generation Xers with the hedonistic times in which they came of age, other studies have also suggested that this might be too simplistic a view. In a paper published in April, researchers at Vanderbilt University in the US state of Tennessee noted that high levels of depression, suicidal ideation, drug use and alcohol abuse identified among middle-aged white Boomers was beginning to impact the youngest members of Generation X. Lauren Gaydosh, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Health and Society and Public Policy Studies at Vanderbilt, forecast that midlife mortality may begin to increase across a range of demographic groups, adding: “Public health efforts to reduce these indicators of despair should not be targeted toward just rural whites, for example, because we’re finding that these patterns are generalised across the population.”

Earlier this month, new figures published by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) revealed that the number of English pensioners aged over 90 being admitted to hospital after suffering from psychological and behavioural disorders following cocaine use had risen ten-fold over the past decade. This came almost a year after similar data revealed that the number of over-45s in the UK seeking medical attention after suffering serious mental health problems as a result of drug use had risen by 85% over the previous decade. Speaking with the Guardian at the time, Ian Hamilton, Associate Professor of Addiction at the University of York, said: “[Older people] are more likely to have had longer drug-using careers, so they will need longer in specialist drug treatment. However, unfortunately treatment services are being directed to offer abstinence-based services rather than maintaining this group on substitute drugs like methadone.”

Both ONS studies and the Vanderbilt paper suggest that rising problem drug use and overdose deaths among older people in both the UK and the US have little to do with them being children of the second summer of love or having grown up believing heroin chic was the epitome of cool. Instead, evidence indicates that the growing number of people experiencing problems with drugs in later life appear to be among the most vulnerable in society, suggesting that labelling them with nicknames such as the “Trainspotting generation” might at the very least be treating the problems they face with undue flippancy.

While it may be the case that some Boomer or Gen X drug users might have been living with a habit for decades, it would seem that many are pushed to use illicit substances as a result of the undesirable life situations in which they have found themselves, and not as part of ill-advised efforts to relive the hedonism of their youth.

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Why Black Friday and Cyber Monday are still Christmas come early for counterfeiters and hackers

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Black Friday and Cyber Monday are still Christmas come early for counterfeiters

Quite why the retail industry continues to insist on cannibalising its most profitable period of the year by staging Black Friday and Cyber Monday events in the lead up to Christmas remains a mystery to many. But while the benefits of slashing prices and effectively bringing the holiday season shopping period forward to November may seem questionable to some observers, there is little doubt that these discounting extravaganzas generate huge sales, even if these do come at the expense of those made later in the year.

In many cases, it is debatable as to just how good a bargain shoppers get during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales events, with several retailers using smoke and mirrors to make it appear as though the deals they offer are better than they really are, but there is no denying that these types of retail phenomena have captured large swathes of the public’s imagination. So much so in fact that shoppers become so focussed on bagging a bargain during such bonanzas that they fail to take the usual precautions they would under typical circumstances.

Busy retail periods traditionally offer fruitful opportunities to sellers of counterfeit goods. Evidence suggests these are multiplied during sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, during which consumers are encouraged to believe they must act speedily to secure the best of the bargains available. Consequently, some shoppers spend less time than they should thinking about the source of the goods they are buying, having been whipped up into a frenzied state by the psychological pressures these types of events are designed to exert.

Back in July, a survey of 2,000 US internet shoppers conducted by anti-piracy and counterfeit protection firm Red Points revealed that many consumers feel under pressure to snap up a bargain during Amazon’s Prime Day sales event, which shares many characteristics with Black Friday and Cyber Monday. That pressure, Red Points said, results in consumers making hasty decisions and failing to carry out the research into potential purchases they would usually conduct. The poll found 60% of respondents said they had felt under pressure to buy items more quickly than they otherwise might when shopping during the Prime Day event. Panel members said they suspected that “33% more of the products they had bought [on Prime Day] were counterfeit”.

The pressure that these types of sales events exert on shoppers creates the perfect environment for counterfeiters, allowing them to target shoppers whose defences are impaired by the psychological stresses they are put under. As well a using ecommerce platforms such as Amazon, eBay and Alibaba to offer fake goods during sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, criminals also exploit such occasions to fraudulently obtain consumers’ personal information using fake apps and websites. Last year, a report from online security firm RiskIQ warned members of the public that hackers were planning to capitalise on Black Friday and Cyber Monday by creating fake smartphone apps and bogus landing pages to fool consumers into downloading malware, use compromised sites or hand over their login credentials and credit card information.

Demographically, Red points warned last year in a separate report to the one mentioned above that millennials’ risky shopping habits leaves them particularly vulnerable to counterfeiters during major shopping events. This was put down to the fact that the vast majority of millennials prefer shopping online to visiting bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. A poll conducted by Red Points also revealed that 27.4% of millennials admitted to predominantly shopping impulsively online, and that those impulsive buyers are prone to following online promotional offers on social media, where fraudsters and hackers often target potential victims. According to data gathered by IP Watchdog, millennials lost an estimated $482 million buying fake items on Black Friday in 2017.

While people who buy counterfeit goods during sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday in most cases do so inadvertently, a new study suggests that some consumers are willing to accept the risk that they might be purchasing a bogus item as a factored in hazard while seeking out bargains online. According to a poll commissioned by US trade organisation the Toy Association ahead of the holiday season, many parents are willing to take a risk by making a purchase from unverified online vendors if they believe they might get a bargain or secure an item they might not be able to source elsewhere. The survey revealed that the top reasons parents would consider buying toys from unverified sellers included toys being out of stock everywhere else (32%), or if the toy was exactly what their children wanted (31%).

For those unwilling to risk it, consumers can take several steps to make sure they are not hoodwinked during events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday by only buying from websites and sellers they are familiar with, or failing that, by doing their research into sources they do not know. Fundamentally however, the best way of steering clear of counterfeiters and hackers during these types of sales extravaganzas is to resist the pressure they seek to create and keep in mind that if a deal appears too good to be true, chances are it will be a scam.

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The voracious greed of sports organisations is driving TV piracy

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greed of sports organisations is driving piracy

The international rise of online TV streaming services has created a cash bonanza for sports broadcasting rights holders. So much so in fact, that a recent report from research firm Rethink TV forecast that media sports rights revenues will hit $85.1 billion by 2025, rising from $48.6 billion last year. Rights to football broadcasts alone are expected to make $31.9 billion by 2025, up from $12.8 billion in 2018. Yet despite this incredibly healthy outlook, some in the sports broadcasting industry are worried that rising levels of piracy might be about to bring on a reversal in their fortunes, and expose them to the types of risks and profit loss that the film and music industries have known all too well over the past few decades.

Speaking earlier this month at the Leaders Week Sport Business Summit in London, boss of Qatar-based beIN Media Group Yousef Al-Obaidly told delegates that the sports media rights “bubble” was about to burst as a consequence of the growth of broadcast piracy across the globe. “I’m here to tell you how the endless growth of sports rights is over,” Al-Obaidly said. “Not only that, but in certain cases, rights values are going drop off a cliff, and the very economic model of our industry is going to be re-written.”

Al-Obaidly has more reason than most to be pessimistic about the effect piracy is having on the global sports broadcast rights market, having fought a protracted battle with Saudi-based pirate TV channel beoutQ and Riyadh-headquartered satellite provider Arabsat, which jointly stand accused of barefacedly stealing beIN’s content and repackaging it as their own. Back in January, beIN published a “dossier of evidence” on a special website that outlined how the two organisations had stolen its sports and entertainment content on “an industrial scale”.

Almost one year on, beoutQ is continuing to repackage beIN’s content as its own. Last month, a report commissioned by football’s world governing body Fifa confirmed “without question that beoutQ’s pirate broadcasts have been transmitted using satellite infrastructure owned and operated by Arabsat”. The study was published after BeIN said in June that it had laid off a fifth of its workforce in Qatar, citing Saudi piracy for a downturn in revenues. Around the same time, pay-TV operator OSN blamed piracy in the Middle East and North Africa for its decision to close its cricket channel, saying in a statement: “Illegal streaming sites, pirate IPTV decoders within OSN’s licensed territories, has made it difficult for OSN to continue offering [the service].”

In September, Eurojust announced that it had led an international coalition of judicial and police authorities in a day of action that resulted in the shutdown of a pirate TV network that broadcast stolen content to tens of millions of people across the globe, including programming taken from sports live-stream service Dazn. Earlier this month, the UK’s Premier League revealed it had successfully taken legal action against a man for selling illegal streaming devices that provided viewers with access to Premier League broadcasts repackaged by beoutQ, suggesting that rights holders might now focus their attention on smaller scale pirates having had little success in pursuing larger pirate networks. This conviction came after police in France said in June that they had arrested five people after receiving a complaint about the distribution of pirated broadcast content from Canal+ Group, beIN and RMC Sport.

While stories such as these might secure a moderate level of media attention, rights holders are deluded if they believe they can prosecute their way out of problem. Sports content piracy will continue to rise while consumers are charged to access content they want to see at a price they are unwilling to pay. Factor into this the fact that the broadcast of sports is often fragmented across numerous different paid-for platforms, often forcing consumers to pay multiple subscriptions to access the content they want, and it is not difficult to see why the pirates are thriving.

Sports organisations would do well to take a leaf out of the music industry’s book and explore delivery options and pricing models that are more palatable to the fans who consume their content, and ultimately account for a large proportion of their revenue. According to figures collated by London-based MUSO, music was only the third most-pirated medium in 2018, thanks in no small part to the popularity of online streaming platforms such as Spotify, Deezer and Apple Music. Rather than seeking to sustain a status quo that actively encourages piracy, the sports industry should look to establish a broadcasting model that will protect the interests of rights holders over the long term, as the music industry has done. If it fails to do so, Al-Obaidly’s gloomy predictions are likely to be proved prescient.

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