Every breaking story makes the blood run cold, tempering the sense of satisfaction at a job well-done by law enforcement agencies – every story, that is, about yet another large-scale case of child sexual abuse on the internet.
To focus on Bulgaria and Europe alone, the past year has seen a number of high-profile busts of paedophilia rings that were operating online.
In October, 20 men, aged from 20 to 40, were arrested in what the Interior Ministry described as an "unprecedented" operation in several cities in Bulgaria against online child pornography. The previous month, working with Luxembourg police, an operation in Sofia led to arrests and confiscation of computer equipment from a group that allegedly had been distributing child pornography. The Interior Ministry said that detailed analysis had shown that more than 8000 members from 114 countries, including Bulgaria, had accessed a server containing images and visuals depicting child pornography.
In May, a 34-year-old, said by the Interior Ministry to have been a teacher of fifth to eighth grade children at a local school, was arrested after being detected downloading child pornography.
Add to this cases elsewhere in Europe that have hit the headlines in 2011: Greece in October saw the arrest of six men, including Greeks, a German, an Austrian, a Ukrainian and a US serviceman, for online distribution of child porn; Poland in June, where 213 people were arrested on suspicion of possession and distribution of child pornography on the internet; the UK in May, where an investigation led to arrests in a village in Lincolnshire where a server was hosting images distributed to users in 45 countries. In March, after an investigation by police in Brazil and in Italy, searches were carried out in nine Italian cities, leading to the arrest of a 41-year-old man in Rome who owned 14 000 files depicting child sexual abuse. This investigation established the existence of a network of paedophiles in 26 countries, including Bulgaria.
New legislation is making its way through the European Union decision-making process that will mean much harsher penalties for child abusers and viewers of child sex images on the web. Approved by the European Parliament in October, the directive is expected to be formally adopted by the EU Council of Ministers before the end of 2011, and EU countries, Bulgaria among them, will have up to two years to transpose the new rules into their national laws.
Portrayal of child sexual abuse online is, however, only one way in which predators use cyberspace; another is online "grooming" – preparing a targeted child or teenager for sexual assault – a practice which may involve cyber-bullying as part of these preparations.
In separate reports in recent weeks, Interpol and an EU agency have come up with recommendations for dealing with the scourge of use of the internet for sexual abuse of children and teenagers.
Consider this, against statistics reported earlier this year; in June, the European Commission said that only two social networking sites had default settings to make minors’ profiles accessible only to their approved list of contacts and only four ensured that minors could be contacted by default by friends only.
In the EU, the number of minors using social networks is growing. In June, the number was said to be 77 per cent of 13- to 16-year-olds and 38 per cent of nine- to 12-year-olds who use the internet.
In December 2010, Bulgaria’s National Centre for Safer Internet said that a survey had found that 43 per cent of Bulgarian children said that they used the internet "often" or "very often", of which 10 per cent said that in the past year they had seen something "disturbing" (in the terminology of the survey) on the internet.
This parochial focus aside, the problem is global.
At the Interpol general assembly in early November, a legislative global strategy was accepted, to provide a "best practice" model for countries that do not have sufficient online child protection legislation.
The head of Interpol’s Virtual Global Taskforce, Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan, said that the taskforce recognised that while many countries may have legislation in place, they may lack the capacity to enforce it, or the training and expertise to dedicate resources to combat this type of crime.
"Part of the answer to fighting online child sexual abuse lies in greater collaboration with international law enforcement partners," Gaughan said. "This co-operation is most effective when the countries have common cybercrime laws."
He said that suitable legislation assists global law enforcement partners with evidence-sharing, extradition and the prosecution of such offences, while also acting as a deterrent for potential child predators.
This month, the EU agency known as the European Network and Information Security Agency (Enisa) released a report on cyber bullying and online grooming warning that misuse of data, such as data mining and profiling, harms minors.
One key recommendation is to strengthen EU member states’ law enforcement agencies. Other recommendations cover safeguards adapted to the needs of young people’s cyber activities.
"Digital devices and the internet now play a significant role in children’s lives," the Enisa report said. "Today’s young people live their online lives in both private and educational settings. This is an environment radically different from that of their parents, in their childhoods. Risks in a child’s online environment can be detrimental to their physical activities and social skills."
The report makes 18 recommendations. Apart from strengthening law enforcement, with additional knowledge and resources to properly cover regulatory issues, collection of statistical data on misuse cases and follow-ups on breaches of privacy, other recommendations include sponsored online campaigns on social networks to prevent grooming and cyber bullying.
"Parents/guardians/educators need better technological skills to overcome the knowledge gap between adults and teenagers".
The report narrates how teenagers can use their internet and technological skills to deceive their parents about what they are doing online, for example, by setting up additional profiles on social networks that their parents do not know about.
The report makes it clear just how perilous a world modern cyberspace can be, worsened by the problem of parents ignorant or misled about its ways.
Some of the issues raised are very difficult ones, for example that of a "privacy impact assessment for applications processing teenager’s data" – in other words, getting into the issue of monitoring precisely what it is that your teenager is doing online (right now, knowing that is getting more difficult not only when a child has its own computer in its own room, but also may be using a smartphone to go online outside the parental home).
Other "mitigation measures", in the report’s term, that are recommended are the use of "specialised teenager security settings, and adaptation of existing one to teenager needs".
Another is age-orientated access control mechanisms.
Among the top risks for teenagers, out of a total of 13 identified in the report, are suffering serious loss of physical or mental health; irreversibly exposing important personal information online; discrimination based on online behaviour; and misuse of personal data.