VANCOUVER—Over nine days in the summer of 2018, a joint sting operation between Vancouver police and RCMP arrested 47 men seeking teenage girls online for sex. Among them: a teacher, a firefighter, a school trustee.
In Ontario, provincial police laid a bevy of online child-exploitation charges against 122 people in November alone. Among those arrested: members of the military, engineers, emergency personnel and former and current teachers.
In Alberta, police arrested 13 people including a football coach between February and October 2018 for trying to arrange sex with children. All the alleged offences took place through social media platforms and online communication tools.
In all three operations, police used undercover techniques to catch would-be sex offenders. But behind the headlines these stings generate, the problem of child exploitation is far more pervasive than the public will ever know.
The trafficking in images and videos that show the sexual abuse of children — some of them in real time — has accelerated as new online platforms connect predators directly to young, would-be victims, outstripping police resources to track them down and investigate them.
In fact, the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre received an estimated 55,000 online child sex exploitation reports in 2018, up from 9,371 in 2013 — bulked up in part due to earlier legislative changes requiring internet service providers to report child pornography.
Staff Sgt. Steve Camp with the Edmonton Police Service runs a 17-person unit responsible for all child-exploitation investigations north of Red Deer in Alberta. His six front-line officers conducted more than 600 investigations last year.
“We’re just being flooded, literally loaded with files per week,” Camp said. “It’s insane.”
Some of those investigations involve what’s known as catfishing. It’s become a common tool: Undercover officers create fake online personas and pose as teens themselves, attempting to lure pedophiles looking for sex.
While many police agencies consider it the most effective way to uncover online predators, it’s time consuming, especially when measured against the size of the problem. It took Camp’s investigators eight months to arrest 13 people last year.
Before cellphones and computers and tablets exploded on the market, child predators were more likely to be adults preying on those close to them or prowlers lurking near schools, playgrounds and swimming pools. These offences still happen. But now, with the vast majority of Canadian households connected to the Internet, a would-be predator’s first contact with a child could be through the chat function of a video game or through social-media apps that use GPS to connect users with those around them, like MeetMe and Tinder.
To keep up, police tactics have evolved. They now include methods to track people who upload and share child pornography images on peer-to-peer sharing platforms or torrent sites.
“I think law enforcement has an obligation to inform the public exactly what’s going on out there,” Camp said. “I don’t think the public is seeing this hidden evil going on in society ... millions and millions of videos, it’s just outrageous, of rapes of children.”
Police agencies across Canada said there is a link between people who trade illegal images in the virtual world and those who commit sex offences in the real world.
StarMetro examined two months of B.C. court records between October and December 2018 and found that among 141 people currently charged with child pornography, one in five faced additional sex allegations, including child luring, sexual assault, sexual interference, voyeurism, invitation to sexual touching and publishing of intimate images.
Camp, the Alberta child exploitation unit leader, said his department conducted its own assessment of child pornography offenders and found more than half of all files checked over a four-month period contained both “child pornography and contact offences.”
“Depending on the research ... it can be 20 to 50 per cent, and one study showed 87 per cent,” he said.
Ontario Provincial Police Staff Sgt. Sharon Hanlon agrees.
“Is there a correlation between looking at this and becoming a hands-on offender? I’m of the opinion that there is,” said Hanlon, who co-ordinates the Ontario provincial anti-child-exploitation strategy.
A relatively new tactic police use is to chase the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of those who openly share images and videos on peer-to-peer networks. Internet service providers like Telus, Shaw or Rogers are required by law to notify the Canadian Centre for Child Protection when child porn is shared; the centre then forwards the IP addresses to police. Tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook use software to scan images for child pornography, programs to check keywords in searches and in-house investigators to flag illegal content.
In 2011, a change in a piece of federal legislation gave investigators nearly unfettered access to the subscriber records of Internet service providers, said Hanlon.
All they had to do was ask telecom companies for the name and address associated with an IP, and most were happy to comply. That changed in 2014, when a Supreme Court of Canada decision determined that police had to have a search warrant to ask for names and addresses. This makes investigations more challenging, as police can wait up to a month to get a search warrant in their hands.
There are many ways that online child exploitation cases can unfold. In the high-profile case of B.C. teen Amanda Todd, it began with an anonymous man convincing her to send sexually explicit pictures. She was just 12 at the time, but that single moment of vulnerability would continue to torment the teen when the photos were widely distributed. She moved multiple times to new schools, but the images followed her online.
A month before her death, she decided to tell the world about her “never-ending story.” Using a series of cards in an online video, she talked about how a stalker approached her online and somehow knew the name of her school, her relatives, her friends. This stalker demanded more pictures. Eventually, she learned through a nighttime visit from police, her pictures had been released online. The online bullying followed her into real life, and she could not escape no matter how far she tried to run.
It became too much. On Oct. 10, 2012, Todd killed herself. She was only 15.
The Dutch man accused in her case, Aydin Coban, has been charged with child pornography and child luring and is awaiting extradition to Canada. Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, said the problem of online child exploitation has only grown since her daughter was targeted more than eight years ago.
“Law enforcement, they need to continue to investigate and look at IP addresses and do their undercover operations in order to find the child exploiters, because they need to know they can be caught,” Todd said in an interview.
“The advent of internet and technology that is faster, bolder, more advanced has added to this ongoing, growing problem.”
She urged parents to speak with and educate their children on the dangers of using the internet — particularly as apps and online games, often equipped with chat functions, target ever younger audiences.
“A lot of parents say, ‘I’ll just take the internet away from my kids.’ You can’t do that, because they’ll find another source ... It’s about teaching your child who you talk to, do you know that person. If that person starts asking you questions that make you uncomfortable, what should you do?” Todd said.
“We just need to empower our kids about knowing what to do.”
The perception that police alone can’t protect the community has caused vigilante groups to step in. Chilliwack, B.C.-based Creep Catchers has conducted its own sting operations, and its work has resulted in charges against an RCMP officer, a realtor and a school principal, among others.
Andre Bell, a director with the group, said they pose as children or teens, collect chat logs from suspected child predators, then film those who show up to meet in person.
“I catch two, three, four guys a week with clear sexual intent,” Bell said. “Sending lewd images to minors, asking for nude pictures of minors, which is production of child pornography.
“I’m giving these chat logs to police, and they’re just not doing anything,” he said. “Maybe now they’re starting to look into it more.”
The problem is not so much that police don’t care. It’s more that they can’t keep up or, in most jurisdictions, don’t have a good grasp on the size of the problem because they haven’t been keeping track.
One exception is B.C.’s Integrated Child Exploitation team. Of the three provinces StarMetro investigated — British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta — B.C. has the only provincial police team actively tracking how many peer-to-peer files are being exchanged.
The RCMP, which leads the team, approved interviews with investigators on the condition they would not be named.
One of them, an RCMP investigator with the National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre, said the purpose behind capturing the numbers was to help influence public policy, providing decision makers with a full picture of the amount of child exploitation happening in the province.
After the B.C. RCMP started tracking all peer-to-peer file-sharing cases in 2014, its child pornography data exploded. That’s reflected in Statistics Canada data, which show the number of child pornography cases in B.C. jumped to 1,789 in 2017 from 300 incidents in 2013. The numbers fluctuate in other provinces from year to year, but none have anywhere near the increase seen in B.C. For example, in Ontario, which has three times the population of B.C., the number of cases roughly doubled from 1,285 in 2013 to 2,420 in 2017.
“My view ... is that B.C. (RCMP) was trying to get an accurate number, or snapshot in time, of peer-to-peer activity ... to give them a better idea of how to make operational plans relevant to protecting kids in British Columbia,” said the RCMP investigator. “If the province of B.C. was trying to make a strategic decision about investment in child protection ... those kinds of things would help.”
Another investigator with the Surrey RCMP said B.C.’s numbers may be high, but they are confident if other police jurisdictions started counting peer-to-peer file sharing, their child exploitation cases would increase exponentially too.
As for accusations that police are letting cases fall by the wayside? Given the sheer volume of files shared, they have to prioritize which cases to pursue — even after making arrests.
Both Alberta and Ontario police confirm they go after the files most likely to involve a child currently being abused at the expense of other child exploitation cases.
That means less-severe offenders, including those detected sharing child porn on peer-to-peer networks, are often left alone. In Alberta, B.C. and Ontario, this number amounts to hundreds and sometimes thousands of potential investigations into child sexual abuse.
After an arrest, Det. Keith Nugent with B.C.’s Abbotsford Police Department always checks to see whether someone he arrested for child porn has access to children.
“Even someone who doesn’t have children, or no documented children, they could, you know, babysit, they could do child care, they could access children from previous marriages,” said Nugent. “We sort that out with every investigation. Like toys, clothes, all that stuff inside the house as we’re searching.”
Michael Mui is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @mui24hours