Written by: Saskia Sumida
In October, an Amsterdam-based agency “Lemz” won a top accolade and the “Future” award at this year’s Dutch Design Awards. The agency had partnered with an organization entitled “Terre des Hommes” in May of 2013 to raise awareness of and fight a previously largely unknown form of child exploitation known as “webcam child sex tourism.” Terre des Hommes is a network of ten national organizations whose mission revolves around working for the rights of children without racial, religious, political, cultural or gender-based discrimination.
Terre des Hommes approached Lemz with a proposition to design an apparatus that would aid in the identification and capture of those exploiting children through webcam tourism. In response, Lemz created a virtual ten-year-old girl named “Sweetie” who looked and was able to perform actions like a real girl. The program enabled a way to capture pedophiles without putting a child in any direct danger. In fact, though predators thought Sweetie was in the Philippines, operators controlled her with a software application from an Amsterdam warehouse (cnet.com). Once put into action, Terre des Hommes quickly compiled a lost of 1,000 adults from over sixty-five countries (terredeshommes.com).
Though Sweetie’s character was critical for engagement with the pedophiles that approached “her,” the Terre des Hommes team was responsible for gathering information after a chat had begun. The group never accepted payments nor performed any type of computer hacking. Instead, the subjects themselves offered all material obtained. Sweetie’s operators asked questions to prompt the perpetrator to reveal facts about themselves. These operators would also often ask to move to another medium such as Skype with the excuse that the chat room was faulty. This and other answers helped Terre des Hommes locate the 1,000 pedophiles on various social media platforms.
Without many details, the organization was still able to compile a list of sex offenders that it then handed over to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). Such a move resulted in various culprits attending court whereas before there were only three previous instances of webcam tourism charges worldwide.
Amidst all the praise and positive change brought about by this campaign, Interpol has raised concerns over Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) acting as pseudo law enforcement. Interpol argues that criminal investigations should only be undertaken by government officials who can gather evidence in accordance with national legislation (abcfamily.com). The police organization cites that any information outside of this realm may be inadmissible in court and therefore rendered useless.
These concerns have materialized this week in November throughout the United Kingdom (rt.com). Earlier this year, more than 600 people in the UK have been suspected of online pedophilic content. Citizens have responded to this trend by creating false social media accounts to lure in suspected pedophiles while building a case against them to use in British courts.
Two such accounts were created by Brendan Collis and his wife under the vigilante Online Predator Investigation and Team (OPIT). Frustration of police inaction against online predators caused the pair to join OPIT causes. The Collis’ began gathering information on a 50-year-old Peter Mitchell, a school groundskeeper, in August 2013. Mitchell had sent sexually provocative messages and explicit photos to the two invented underage girls. As a result of Collis’ baiting, Mitchell received a three-year community order and became a registered sex offender (theguardian.com).
Across the UK, more and more people have been speaking out in favor of catching sexual predators through social media. A strong voice in particular is that of one of the country’s leading sex crime experts and former director of Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency, Jim Gamble. Not only this but Gamble stated that the government’s strategy was “confused” and “incompetent.”
This social media method does not come without risks, though, as has been made clear before. Toby Fawcett-Greaves of Derbyshire’s Police Public Protection Program welcomes any information that residents have to offer but warns, similar to Interpol, that such knowledge may not be accepted in courts. Additionally, vigilante groups such as OPIT might harm ongoing investigations or prompt an offender to act out more aggressively.
Law enforcement cases have always required citizens to watch from the sidelines but social media is altering those parameters. Without permission from a higher source of authority, individuals may take it upon themselves to become involved with criminal apprehension or accountability. Such a method comes with immediate reward and a sense of complete knowledge of the given situation but does not account for other factors. Police forces have more resources and power to follow and represent these cases as well as an understanding that different situations call for separate approaches.
Power to the people and for the people is constantly being made into more of a truism thanks to the web and social media in particular. As cultural power dynamics change, a shift of understanding must ensue to guarantee that the right to exercise certain actions is powerful and not without consequence. Those who truly want to mobilize change will have to consider the impact that each false Facebook profile and incriminating message will have on people involved.
Negative factors aside, the impact that social media activism could have is tremendous. Police forces can potentially begin to take advantage of these platforms whether it be collecting information or reaching out to those who can help. Despite the slew of social media opposition, the potential rewards from maneuvering such programs is insurmountable and should be followed as time passes.
- Booth, Robert. “Paedophile Hunters: The Vigilantes Taking the Law into Their Own Hands.” The Guardian. N.p., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
- Jovanovic, Dragana. “‘Sweetie’ Sting Lures Thousands of Alleged Pedophiles.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 05 Nov. 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
- “Pedophiles Targeted with Fake Social Media Accounts, Police Warn Innocents at Risk.” RT UK. N.p., 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
- Star, Michelle. “First Man Convicted in Child Predator Sting with Virtual Girl Sweetie – CNET.” CNET. N.p., 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
- “Sweetie Avatar by Lemz Wins Dutch Design Award 2014.” Dezeen Lemz Wins Dutch Design Award 2014 Withbr Avatar for Fighting Child Sex Tourism Online Comments. N.p., 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
- “TDHIF – Terre Des Hommes International Federation.” Terre Des Hommes RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
- Toor, Amar. “Computer Generated Girl Leads to Pedophile Conviction in Australia.” The Verge. N.p., 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.