Legal and Technological Approaches to Tackle Online Child Abuse

Introduction

Protecting the most vulnerable members of society should be an essential feature of any well-functioning legal system. A reputed non-governmental organization in Pakistan, in its annual report titled Cruel Numbers, painfully displays that the Pakistani state has failed to protect one of its highly vulnerable and defenseless groups: its children.[1] Child abuse has plagued our society for many years and only recently gained mainstream media attention after the horrendous rape and murder of a six year old child in Kasur had been reported in 2018. Although the atrocity has led to further conversation and discourse on the evils of child abuse, very little has been done practically to eliminate such heinous crimes.

What is even more problematic in this era of technology and online social presence of the society at large is that crimes such as child abuse now occupy the online sphere as well. Generally, child abuse may consist of acts such as rape, harassment, online child grooming (the solicitation of children for sexual purposes), live streaming of child abuse, child pornography, cyber-bullying and other similar criminal acts against children under the age of eighteen. With regard to online child abuse, cyberspace even allows perpetrators of such crimes to maintain a high level of secrecy and anonymity, helping them to continue committing such crimes easily and over prolonged periods of time.[2] Unfortunately, despite the high volume and risk of incidents relating to online child abuse, the existing laws in Pakistan still prove to be inadequate in the face of such crimes. This article will examine the current legal and technological approaches taken by Pakistan in its efforts to curb physical as well as online child abuse.

The constantly evolving online universe allows for a multitude of ways for predators to target, exploit and abuse naïve children who actively occupy online spaces. Online child abuse has time and again been recognized as a global problem and has led European states to sign directives[3] and conventions such as the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse of 2007 (also referred to as the Lanzarote Convention), including the Optional Protocol criminalizing child pornography. Statistics from the international policing agency INTERPOL from 2008 led to the creation of a database called the “Child Abuse Image Database” which was able to identify more than six hundred victims across the globe, while the United Kingdom’s Internet Watch Foundation identified almost 3,000 domains containing images of child sexual abuse.[4] This article will also aim to discuss the legal and technological approaches taken by Pakistan to identify and criminalize child abuse crimes committed specifically in the online or virtual space.

Existing Legal Framework in Pakistan

In the recent past, large scale research has been conducted to uncover the effects that the Internet and online space has on children. Although many of these effects are conducive to their learning and socializing experiences, questions have arisen regarding the safety of such online spaces.[5] These questions force regulators and legislators to work towards creating age-appropriate and controlled online environments so as to keep children safe from any form of exploitation or abuse.

Similar to the online portals mentioned from other jurisdictions, Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation is reported to have collaborated with the Internet Watch Foundation to create a portal to ensure children’s safety. The portal aims to let people report child abuse incidents. The reports would then be assessed by trained analysts.[6] Such an initiative is by far, an unprecedented feat for our country and is expected to provide real and effective ways to tackle online child abuse.

From a legal perspective, it has been consistently found that laws pertaining to the protection of children are inherently vague and not sufficient to include all forms of abuse directed towards them. Moreover, there are barely any special provisions to differentiate between abuse against children and adults.[7] This puts both groups at an equal footing before the law, neglecting the higher vulnerability of children.

One of the relevant laws worth mentioning here is the Balochistan Child Protection Act, 2016. Section 2(1)(t) puts forth an elaborate definition of mental violence against children. Sub-clause (vii) of the same section includes any psychological harassment of children by adults, transmitted or conducted through the use of information technology, the Internet, or cyber devices such as mobile phones. By expanding the scope of harassment to include novel technologies, the Balochistan provincial legislature has recognized the existence of online child abuse and the long-term consequences it has on young minds.

The province of Punjab has been quite active with respect to recognizing the need for law to protect the young of the society. However, trends show that the enactment of laws has proved to be futile against child abuse committed online. The first Bill acknowledging and protecting children was introduced in 1952 but the government only made a half-hearted effort towards the cause as it never issued a notification for the law to come into force.

The second attempt to protect children from abusive acts was reflected in the Punjab Children’s Ordinance in 1983, which was also never converted into an Act of Parliament.

It was only in the year 2004 that the Punjab Assembly passed and enforced a law to protect children from some forms of exploitation and abuse through the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004. Even that attempt by the government was half-hearted as the law was to take effect in some areas only and from an uncertain date to be notified by the government. Additionally, the law does not address the various other kinds of abuse children may face, particularly sexual abuse which may carry further into the online sphere.

This law has many other shortcomings: the most glaring one being its language, which is impractical and consequently not properly enforceable by law enforcement authorities often given minimal to no training or sensitization on such matters. While the Act may have helped establish child protection units in certain cities of the Punjab, the conditions in those units are dismal. This only furthers the notion that a piece of legislation holds very little value without a holistic understanding of the problems rampant in society and without the cooperation of enforcement authorities inevitably responsible to apply the law to its practical effect.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 also aims to curb online child sexual abuse and harassment. It was enacted to apply to the whole of Pakistan.

Section 21 of PECA pertains to the modesty of a minor and a natural person. It prescribes the punishment of imprisonment (for a term which may extend to seven years) and fine (which may extend to five million rupees) in case any person is involved with online child abuse.[8]

Moreover, Section 22 of PECA criminalizes the production, distribution, transmission and procurement of child pornography, through information systems, amongst others. This provision is undoubtedly the need of the hour for Pakistan. However, the law has so far not been employed effectively because of two reasons: first, people do not have the Internet literacy to actually know about the procedures they can follow to report online abuse; and secondly, no mechanisms exist at local community levels, such as those at par with police departments, because of which people hesitate to go through the procedure with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).[9]

Importance of Technological Approach

The heinous rape and murder of Zainab Ansari in 2018 raised great public outcry for penal action to be taken against individuals involved in the crime of child abuse. It was just one of many such incidents which happened to receive enough media spotlight to attract the attention of government officials. Prior to this, in 2015, a number of similar cases had taken place which were later exposed to be committed by a gang involved in sexually assaulting children and recording the assault in pictures and videos. As shocking as the incidents were, they did not receive much coverage and were instead shoved under the rug by the authorities. Zainab’s unfortunate tragedy was an eye-opener about how ill-equipped our police had been to tackle the issue. It was not until help had been sought from intelligence agencies operating in Pakistan and a team of data analysts from the Information Technology University (ITU) that the mafia involved in online child abuse and child pornography was exposed.[10] Since no action had been taken against the perpetrators in the past, it was suspected that the same mafia was involved in the 2018 incidents as well.[11]

Recent incidents of child abuse have made it glaringly obvious that to protect the most vulnerable members of our society from predators committing heinous crimes, it is important to address the matter not just by relying on legal provisions but also technological means.

Websites and individuals involved in such activities tend to take cover under the dark internet, also referred to as the dark web. This layered and covert part of the internet is usually used by perpetrators involved in drug smuggling, human trafficking, child abuse and terrorism, etc. It provides a way to individuals involved in such activities to continue their transactions without fear.[12] The dark web is inaccessible through simple search engines and software. Special programs and software can make it possible to access it and view, upload or download material. This makes clear that to curb online child abuse and locate the perpetrators to save children at risk, it is important for our law enforcement agencies and police departments to be adequately equipped with the relevant technological tools and skills.

Some ways in which our law enforcement agencies can tackle online child abuse include the following:

1. Image Analysis and Database

This is the most common type of tool employed by various organizations around the world to locate and take down content related to child abuse. It involves the use of applications such as PhotoDNA. It helps create a unique mark for each image considering its pixels, dimensions and frames, etc. It can then use that particular image to find any similar images off the Internet, in turn creating a digital database for the removal of such content. It has been used by the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the United Kingdom Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre, as well as the INTERPOL, and has helped recover many children and uncover millions of explicit posts involving children.[13]

2. Digital Forensics

Digital forensics can be used by the police to crack and uncover data saved on various digital devices used by criminals, such as mobile phones and computers. Extracting data can be helpful for investigators as it allows them to go beyond physical investigation.

3. Data Mining

The concept of data mining is largely used by tech companies to extract certain type of data from a large set of data in order to streamline the search for consumer preferences. These companies can join hands with the police or relevant NGOs in combating online abuse and helping locate incriminating content online. It can also share the load of the police and the investigators in covering more ground digitally. In the United States, there are examples of companies working with other organizations to locate abducted children and being able to pull up data from various resources and plotting the information on a map.[14]

4. Undercover Online Investigations

Online undercover investigations should be made a part of the overall investigation system. It could involve law enforcement officers going undercover as children, digitally accessing chatrooms, setting up pseudo websites to view content on child sexual abuse, or joining child sexual abuse information forums purporting to be recipients of child sexual abuse content. In doing so, the agents would have to ensure that the programs and software they use would conceal their location and identity.

5. Censorships/Watchdog Apps and Extensions

Law enforcement agencies can collaborate with internet service providers (ISPs) to have alerting mechanisms in place whenever content related to child abuse is requested to be viewed from a user’s search engine, especially on the dark web. These mechanisms should also include programs to detect software and search engines used to access the dark web. Such measures will not only block the explicit content but also help catch perpetrators. In this regard, the European Commission has developed a blocking mechanism for ISPs called the Child Sexual Abuse Anti-Distribution Filter which is currently being used by ISPs in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Malta, Norway and Sweden.[15]

6. Maintaining a Database of Offenders Accessible to Other Departments

A portal or database can be developed and made accessible to all law enforcement agencies and police departments across the country as well as internationally, maintaining a comprehensive record of offenders and any organizations with which they may be linked. This will help combat the issue on a larger scale.

7. Improved Security Software

User-friendly security software should be made available and deemed necessary to be installed on computers and cellphones. It could instantly alert parents, police or investigators in case a perpetrator tried to contact a child or expose a child to explicit content online.

Conclusion

Online child abuse is a novel way of committing criminal abuse against children and can have harmful repercussions for young individuals. It enables perpetrators to carry out abusive acts from behind their computer screens while maintaining anonymity. Despite recent legislative enactments and the use of new technological tools, Pakistan still has long way to go in its efforts to curb online child abuse. While borrowing from the most effective practices of other jurisdictions, our government must also recognize that the new and emerging methods of committing crimes can only be tackled by a well-oiled collaboration between lawmakers, enforcement agencies and cutting-edge technologies.


References

[1] Sahil, ‘Cruel Numbers’ (2019). The report reveals data which indicates a total number of 3,832 cases of child abuse were reported in newspapers in Pakistan during the year 2018.
[2] Christine Harrison, ‘Cyberspace and Child Abuse Images a Feminist Perspective’ (2006) 21 Journal of Women and Social Work.
[3] Directive 2011/92/EU of the European Parliament on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. Article 6 of the Directive includes the terms “…by means of information and communication technology” while defining solicitation of children for sexual purposes and stipulating a punishment of imprisonment up to one year.
[4] Ian A. Elliott and Anthony R. Beech, ‘Understanding Online Child Pornography Use: Applying Sexual Offense Theory to Internet Offenders’ (2009) 14 Aggression and Violent Behavior.
[5] Bibi Van Der Berg, Minding Minors Wandering the Web: Regulating Online Child Safety (TMC Asser Press 2014).
[6] The News, ‘Portal to Combat Child Abuse Content’ (2020) <https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/631591-portal-to-combat-child-abuse-content> accessed 8 May 2020.
[7] Uzma Gillani, ‘Child Sexual Abuse in Pakistan: The Need for an Indigenous Scientific Knowledge Base, Effective Policy Making and Prevention’ (2020) 1 Pakistan Journal of Criminology.
[8] Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016, section 21 (2)
[9] FIA is the authority empowered to investigate non-cognizable offenses as per Rule 2(n) of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Rule 2018.
[10] BBC News, Investigating the murder of Zainab Ansari – BBC NEWS (2018). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH-4f_eYsd4
[11] Xari Jalil, Is Something Wrong With Kasur? Dawn News (2018). https://www.dawn.com/news/1384248
[12] Danny Bradbury, ‘Unveiling The Dark Web’ (2020) 2014 Network Security.
[13] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, ‘Study on the Effects of New Information Technologies on the Abuse and Exploitation of Children’ (2015), pg 45-47. <https://www.unodc.org/documents/Cybercrime/Study_on_the_Effects.pdf> accessed 10 May 2020.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which they might be associated.

Iqra Saif Agha

Author: Iqra Saif Agha

The writer is a law student at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). She is also a member of the Editorial Board at LUMS Law Journal and has previously interned at Insaaf Camp.

Momina Imran

Author: Momina Imran

The writer is a law graduate from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Her research interests include human rights, family laws and studies of gender inclusion and parity.

Zoha Allawala

Author: Zoha Allawala

The writer is a law student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Skilled at mooting, she aims to develop greater awareness with respect to human rights in Pakistan.