The Taboo Type of Cybercrime No One Talks About
Cybercrime. When you think of this word what comes to mind? Online identity theft perhaps; maybe even a big data breach? It seems when we think of the crimes that happen beyond our phone, tablet, and computer screens, we think of the bad guys taking our money. But this isn’t where it ends. There are many types.
In my almost three decades with the FBI, you can imagine I’ve seen my fare share of hard cases. The ones that truly were the most depressing; the ones that were the absolute hardest- were in fact the cases involving child exploitation.
I bring this up not to darken your Monday, but because it is a major part of cybercrime that gets no light shed upon it.
When I was a kid growing up on the tough streets of Brooklyn, my mother was relieved when I would run in, slam the door, and run up to my bedroom. My home was a safe haven from any dangers that lurked outside of it’s walls. As a parent myself, I understand this now.
Today, when our children get home from school and retreat to their rooms, we as parents feel the same sense of relief my mom felt some forty plus years ago. But they now face a new sense of danger that I didn’t when I was a kid. Instead of doing their homework, watching tv, or reading books, our children disappear into a not-so-new altered universe in the form of their computers, smart phones, Ipads or video game systems. It’s been happening for a long time, so why is there an increase?
When I worked on online child exploitation investigations, I provided educational briefings to students, teachers and parents. About a decade ago, I would ask the kids in my brief, “How many of you know more about computers than your parents?” Almost half the students raised their hands. Today I ask, “How many of your parents have no idea what you are doing on your computer?” and you can imagine the response I get. It’s frightening.
It is crucial that no area of cybersecurity remain taboo; that we all understand and are aware of the dangers that lurk beyond every swipe and click.
In 2008, I was the Crimes Against Children’s Coordinator for the FBI Memphis Division. The online child pornography problem was so severe, it was considered an epidemic. So much so, that the (then) FBI Director admitted he could have every FBI Agent in the country assigned to this issue, and we still might not be able to make a dent. Yet you don’t hear much about it when you think about cybercrime.
This is a whole different type of cybersecurity issue, and we have to tackle it now more than ever.
There was no shortage of work. The Agents and Task Force Officers who were assigned these cases described it as, “Shooting fish in a barrel,” as there was only a limited number of investigative and prosecutive resources, but so many cases coming through our doors. We had to triage this type of work and go after what we considered the ‘worst of the worst’ and words can’t describe what that meant.
Some eleven years later, the problem went from “epidemic” to simply out-of-control. What do I mean by this? A recent report by the New York Times states that in 2008, there were 100,000 yearly reported images and videos of child abuse. Today, merely a decade later, that number is close to 45 million.
Read that again.
We need to remember the number actually reported is always much less than the actual number. What’s even more jarring, is that even though there is an inflation of the number of horrible images and video content, the arrests and prosecutions remain stagnant. Today the technology used by these evil-doers makes it much easier to avoid detection by law enforcement.
What is causing such a massive increase over the past decade? For me it’s easy to see. In 2008, kids did not have access to the same type of technology they have today. Almost every one of my 13 year-old’s friends has access to a smartphone device, or plays online video games with friends and total strangers. Our children are using Apps that go undetected on their phones by us as the parents, because online predators disguise them in a deceiving manipulative way. Here is one example of that. Shocking.
Many parents tell me they do a good job reviewing their kids text messages for inappropriate content; however, most kids do not communicate over text messages.
The Internet is a dangerous place for children who are free to roam without parental oversight or at least some guidance. Besides child pornography, we need to worry about cyberbullying, and hate speech. The New York Times article provides some horrifying facts on the scope of this problem.
If you are a victim of identity theft or any cybercrime- you can fix the problem. However, if your child’s innocence is stolen- it is impossible to get back.
As a parent of two teenage boys (ages 13 and 16), I get it. The dangers far exceed our capabilities to keep them safe. Knowing this, our anxieties can be debilitating, along with every other worry that plagues us when it comes to our kids. We are busy. We are trying to survive. We are just trying to parent in the best way possible.
Crimes against children are not new; we just rarely talk about it because of how heart-wrenching it is. But how did these cases start multiplying at such an alarming rate? With messaging platforms, video game chat rooms, social media, and iCloud storage- the ways to bridge the gap between victim and predator are just infinite. And so are the number of victims.
Who would ever think that the technology designed to improve our lives, could do so much harm?
The Internet is like the Wild West; there are no rules and your children may be exposed to bad things and bad people. It used to be easy to tell parents to keep the computer in a common space in the house. Today mobile technology makes this difficult. Keeping your kids off technology will only keep them safe for so long, as all of their friends have access to that technology and you will not always be by their side.
Education is a MUST and should start before your children are introduced to technology. I started when my kids were in first grade. Using online safety education platforms like NetSmartz is a good place to start.
I hear older generations saying they don’t want to know much about technology, or that they have one or two devices and that they only use Facebook or the occasional search engine. Do you know how much danger you are potentially exposing your children or grandchildren to, without knowing what’s out there?
Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss.
Aside from knowing some of these dangers (per the FBI), I’ve included some of my own tips on what you can start doing today:
- Know the Apps on your kids phones and do not let them install them unless you know what they are.
- Teach your children to know the difference between real friends and people they meet online.
- Do not have your children use their real names on gaming platforms, as this makes it easy for the bad guys to identify.
- Talk to your children about oversharing with strangers on social media.
- Practice what you preach. If you are a parent, watch what information you post. You could innocently be giving the bad guys unsolicited information about your kids.
- Realize your children are going to trip over things on the internet. Hold them accountable, however make sure you keep your lines of communication open. Don’t make this a taboo subject.
As a parent you CANNOT be in a position where your kids know more about technology than you do.
Cybercrime comes in many forms. I wouldn’t be doing my educational duty via my presentations, my book, or even this blog, without bringing up child exploitation and abuse. Please don’t let this become another thing you read today. Let it marinate, and spread to those you love. It is important, now more than ever, to remain cybersafe!