From coding to training: Philippines tackles online child

Arief Budi

Global Courant

MANILA – In an unmarked building in a business district of Manila, war is waged 24/7 against dark and mostly hidden crimes – online child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Here, a system developed by cybersecurity experts at PLDT – the Philippines’ largest telecommunications company – blocks millions of subscribers’ attempts every day to access child sexual abuse material.

As of November 2022, PLDT has blocked more than 1.3 billion attempts to access such material with its groundbreaking child protection platform, a system that compares user queries against a vault of known web addresses containing sexual abuse.

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“It’s a lot. It’s worrying,” Angel Redoble, PLDT’s chief information security officer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We don’t know how fast the enemies will get better. We have to deal with it daily.”

The Philippines was named the world’s leading source of online child sexual exploitation content in a 2020 survey by the International Justice Mission, a United States-based non-governmental organization that works against sex trafficking and exploitation.

According to the study, endemic poverty is contributing to a wave of abuse in the Philippines, where about 20 million of the country’s 115 million population live below the poverty line.

According to a study published in 2022 led by UNICEF, an estimated two million Filipino children have been victims of online sexual abuse and exploitation.

The country’s Justice Department has directed telecom companies and internet service providers to notify law enforcement of child sexual abuse material and update their technology to block it or face prosecution.

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But data privacy laws in the Philippines restrict Internet service providers’ access: they can see a user’s search activity, but are not allowed to track individual users or their communications.

Tech experts fear that data protection laws could inadvertently protect some crimes, such as online child sexual exploitation.

Limitless crime

The International Justice Mission said child sexual exploitation online is a “fast-growing, borderless crime,” and that perpetrators in Western countries lured Filipinos into sexually assaulting children and offered images or videos of the exploitation online.

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Live streaming is believed to be more common in the Philippines than in other countries, it said, due to cheap internet access, robust money transfer infrastructure, widespread English proficiency and the country’s reputation as a sex trafficking hub.

Philippine telecom companies and internet service providers are currently unable to block live-streamed content.

The UK-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a technology-led child protection group, said abused children and criminals are often in different parts of the world.

“It may surprise you, but Europe is by far the worst place to host this material,” said the foundation’s press manager, Mr. Josh Thomas.

As the Covid-19 pandemic pushed more Filipinos into poverty, the country saw a 260 percent increase in reports of online sexual exploitation between 2019 and 2022, the Justice Department said.

Role of technology companies

PLDT has been working to block child sexual abuse material since 2018, but was then only able to block suspicious domains.

“We thought that to be able to block at the content level, we would be breaking privacy-related laws by snooping on our subscribers’ traffic,” Redoble said.

The company built its own cybersecurity group, which devised a method to screen for child sexual abuse material without violating data privacy laws. But it needed a way to detect the offending material.

IWF analysts came to the group’s aid by assigning a unique “hash” — a kind of digital fingerprint — to items confirmed online to contain child sexual abuse.

“It’s a line of code that, crucially, cannot be reverse-engineered to produce or access abuse images,” said Thomas.

The IWF provides a hash list of confirmed child sexual abuse material that ISPs can block. Last month, PLDT received more than 400,000 such codes from the foundation.

Mr Thomas said blocking “could protect the victims of child sexual abuse from further reprisal, protect internet users from seeing such images and prevent pedophiles from accessing this content online”.

The company’s biggest competitor, Globe Telecom, also partners with the foundation to boost online child protection.

In the first quarter of 2023 alone, Globe blocked more than 65,000 child sexual abuse sites.

But because the crime is borderless, the IWF and telcos say blocking is just one way to combat the offending material.

“We need to bring suspects to justice,” said Mr Redoble.

Holistic approach

Civil society groups say the fight against child sexual abuse material must be fought within communities, especially in poor areas, where criminals, including parents, can prey on vulnerable children.

In the province of Cebu, the international aid agency Terre des Hommes Nederland is partnering with the Bidlisiw Foundation, a local anti-trafficking group, in a three-year online child safety program called Project SCROL.

The project, which started in 2023, aims to engage Internet service providers, telecom companies, money transfer agencies and technology companies in establishing a system of rapid access to justice, reporting and referral pathways for victims of online child sexual exploitation.

It also operates in Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya.

“Telecom companies have the technology and tools that we don’t have. But they have no influence on the ground, especially local governments, enforcers and households in spreading awareness,” said Ms. Judith Pulvera of Bidlisiw.

Project SCROL-trained staff work in schools and resorts in the tourist resort of Cebu to teach people how to spot the red flags of child sexual exploitation and report them to authorities.

Using separate email accounts to send or receive money transfers from abroad, for example, could be an indication that offenders are trying to hide their identities.

The project also provided digital child protection training to law enforcement and frontline service providers for abused and vulnerable children.

Project SCROL also aims to help the government implement laws to punish abusers.

In 2022, the Philippine Congress passed a law punishing the production, distribution, possession of, and access to child sexual abuse material. It describes the duties of Internet service providers, content hosts, social networking sites and financial institutions to block the material.

For Mr. Redoble, the next goal should be “creating a cleaner cyberspace”.

He proposes a “global chain of trust” between telecom companies and internet service providers worldwide to eradicate once and for all malicious websites and domains that spread child sexual abuse online.

“If the environment is cleaner, it’s safer, especially for women and children,” said Mr Redoble. REUTERS

From coding to training: Philippines tackles online child

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