The internet is a tool that has changed the way we interact with each other and the way that individuals seek out and share information. It has also created a whole new type of criminal offense: internet crime, also known as cyber crime. There are many forms of internet crime, such as hacking, cyberbullying, the production and distribution of child sexual abuse images, fraud, identity theft, and harassment.
Cyber crime is divided into two categories. The first category deals with crimes that target computers via the internet, such as viruses and hacking. These crimes are serious but due to their nonviolent nature this paper will focus primarily on the other side of cyber crime, in which the internet as the tool to commit crime. These crimes include things such as child luring, cyberbullying, sexual extortion, child pornography, and criminal harassment. Indeed, where many of these activities previously only existed in the physical world, they have recently been seen to be increasing in frequency in the virtual one, with similarly negative consequences.
Unfortunately, crimes committed via the internet are particularly difficult to prove in court. If certain criminal activities are traced back to a computer, it can still be unclear who was actually using the computer. The law must strike a balance between preventing the abuse of the internet and protecting individual rights to privacy and free speech. Another major obstacle in the fight against cyber crime is the global nature of the internet and issues of jurisdiction that may arise. There are many ongoing issues surrounding the prevention of cyber crime, but this does not mean that effective laws cannot be sought to protect us. There are currently legislative changes being undertaken to protect Canadians, and these laws will be discussed in the relevant sections below.
This article will examine major internet crimes that involve violence and will deal with those major online offenses that are prevalent in Canada. It will provide a reference on internet crime for all users with a focus on crimes against children. It will allow for parents dealing with their children and the internet to spot potential dangers and learn how to deal with them. Please note that for simplicity the word children is used to describe all persons under the age of majority (18) so it may refer to young children and/or teens.
The RCMP define internet child luring as follows: “Adults aged 18 and more who attempt, through the internet, to contact minors for the purpose of inciting them to have sexual contacts.” These actions are considered criminal under the Criminal Code of Canada in section 172.1.
Chat rooms and social networks are attractive to predators because they allow anonymity online and easy access to underage children. Children are often very active on the internet, and many engage in conversations with “friends” they make on the web. Those children who feel isolated or have low self esteem are more susceptible to potential offenders on the web. By striking up conversations and listening to the children, predators create a rapport with the potential victim. Once the offender has gained the trust of the child, they may pose a potential meeting or coerce the child into running away from their home to run away with them.
In 2014, CTV’s W5 aired a program entitled “Predator’s Playground”; it reported that internet luring has increased about 50% over what it was four years ago. The program reported there are an estimated 750,000 online predators worldwide. Whereas before the internet, predators would have to meet a child in person and coerce him/her to come with them, now they can reach the child in their own homes from virtually any other place in the world through the internet. Chat rooms, social networks and other avenues of virtual communication are attractive to predators because they allow for anonymity (for example, the predator can pretend to be a child/teen themselves) and easy access to underage children who are using the internet at an increasingly high rate.
With wide spread access to the internet from computers, phones, and games, the amount of time a child can spend speaking with an online predator is astounding. This is why parents must keep a close watch on how their children use the internet. For more tips on keeping your child safe on the internet, please see our safety booklet entitled “Your Child and the Internet” which is available on our website under the Child Protection tab.
Cyberbullying has become a very prevalent issue for many young people in Canada. 65% of respondents to a 2011 Kids’ Help Phone poll indicated they had been the target of cyberbullying at least once. Cyberbullying can be defined as the use of electronic communication (i.e. written text, digital photos and videos) to threaten, harass, embarrass, or socially exclude others. Cyberbullying can occur over a variety of media, including:
- Instant messaging (i.e. MSN)
- Social networking platforms (i.e. Facebook)
- Microblogging sites (i.e. Twitter)
- Question and answer–based social websites (i.e. Formspring)
- Rating sites (i.e. Hot or Not)
- Online gaming sites
- Website forums
Cyberbullying presents some unique challenges for both victims and law enforcement that are not present in cases of face-to-face bullying: The bully may remain anonymous which makes it harder for the victims and authorities to deal with; Bullying can take place without the perpetrator having to witness or comprehend the consequences; The victims are always accessible virtually so the bullying can continue at any time or location; Electronic forms of bullying may be easily replicated and redistributed almost instantly; Unlike other areas such as schools where there is a principal, there is no central authority over the internet to control activity; Cyberbullying has the potential for a much larger audience than face-to-face bullying; Cyberbullying may worsen the effects of face-to-face bullying as there is an additive effect and the victims are unable to physically remove themselves from the situation; Policies against physical bullying are well-established in schools but cyberbullying is often not covered. This leaves authority figures at a loss for how to deal with incidents of cyberbullying.
The RCMP recommend that in the event of cyberbullying save all messages; block the sender from contacting you via the website’s security features and never reply to the messages; talk to someone you trust (an adult for children/teens); and contact your local police service in order to file a complaint. One case that has recently illustrated the negative effects of cyberbullying and the difficulty in its prosecution was that of Rehtaeh Parsons. After the Nova Scotia teen was allegedly sexually assaulted by classmates, a cell phone photo of the assault was circulated among her peers at her school and around her community. Parsons was bullied online extensively following the incident, which contributed to her eventual suicide in April 2013.
Nationwide there are legal changes coming in to effect regarding cyber crimes which will make it more clear how law enforcement should deal with these incidents. The Nova Scotia government responded to concerns about cyberbullying by bringing into force the Cyber-safety Act in May 2013. It gives the court authority to order a perpetrator to cease cyberbullying behaviours, stop a person from using a particular form of electronic communication (such as social media); and confiscate computers, tablets or smart phones from individuals involved in cyberbullying. There is also an inclusion of civil responsibility in the Act which allows for an abuser to be sued by a victim. This provision also allows for parents to be liable in civil court for the action of their minor children. The federal government is currently investigating Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act in committee. If passed, the bill will:
- Prohibit the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, which would apply to all people not just child/teens;
- Empower a court to order the removal of intimate images from the Internet;
- Permit the court to order forfeiture of the computer, cell phone or other device used in the offense;
- Provide for reimbursement to victims for costs incurred in removing the intimate image from the Internet or elsewhere; and
- Empower the court to make an order to prevent someone from distributing intimate images.
Cyberbullying is a serious issue and despite recent media attention there is still a long way to go to stop it. With new legislation gradually appearing on the books, there are now more concrete legal measures in place to deal with cyberbullying. Prevention is still the best way to address this issue and the first step in prevention is to speak with your children about cyberbullying. More information on how to protect your children and teens from cyberbullying can also be found in our booklet entitled “Your Child and the Internet” which is available on our website under the Child Protection tab.
Sexual extortion or “sextortion” is a relatively new form of crime on the internet. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection defines sextortion as “adults using technology to exploit children for a sexual purpose.” 15-year-old Amanda Todd was one such teen that fell victim to sexual extortion, and her story has been widely publicized since her suicide (a direct consequence of this extortion and subsequent cyberbullying) in 2012. Todd had exposed her breasts on webcam while interacting with a group of individuals online. Someone in the virtual audience turned out to be a type of internet predator known as a “capper.” Cappers troll the internet for people, generally children and teens, who are exhibiting inappropriate sexual behaviour. These cappers take a “screen shot” of this behaviour in order to extort the children. Often the children are faced with threats of having the screenshot shared to their parents, friends, teachers, employers, and other people in their lives if they do not provide the extortionist with more sexually explicit material or perform tasks as they are demanded. The capper who targeted Todd made connections to her peer group via social media in order to share the photograph of her baring her breasts. Todd was then contacted via Facebook by the harasser demanding three more ‘shows’ of her breasts in order to make him disappear. The capper warned that it would not matter if Todd changed schools, made new friends, or got a new boyfriend; he would find her to continue the harassment. The predator, a man from the Netherlands, has since been charged with extortion, internet luring, criminal harassment and the possession and distribution of child pornography in relation to Todd’s case.
There has been a marked increase in complaints of this nature in recent years. For example, Det. Const. Stephanie Morgan of the Ontario Provincial Police’s Integrated Child Exploitation Unit has spoken about sextortion, saying that this is a symptom of more young people than ever with access to internet ready cameras. Morgan advised young people stop and think before sharing images, and warns them not to share images they would not want a parent, teacher or future employer to see. Morgan stated that young girls are the most prevalent victims of sextortion, but cautioned that anyone can be victimized.
Child Sexual Exploitation Images
Criminal acts related to child sexual exploitation images, also known as child pornography, have been changed and exacerbated by the internet. Under Canadian law it is illegal to make, distribute, possess or access child pornography. Unfortunately, the RCMP has reported that criminals are easily able to hide their identity and share this exploitive pornographic material through hard to reach websites. Over 90% of the reports received by Cybertip.ca between 2002 and 2010 were related to online child pornography. The website, Canada’s tipline for reporting online sexual exploitation of children, is operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Cybertip.ca receives and processes tips about exploitive material on the internet as well as providing resources and referrals services to the public. It is the site recommended by the RCMP that material sexually exploiting children be reported to.
The “Predator’s Playground” documentary mentioned above also highlighted how children can fall victim to this internet crime as well. It profiled the case of 15-year old Eric who had been lured online when he was 12. A person appearing to be a teenage girl with mutual friends of Eric’s added him on Facebook, so without asking any questions he quickly accepted. The girl almost immediately began asking Eric to remove clothing on his webcam. When his mother noticed his increasingly secretive behaviour around his internet use, she examined his account. His mother’s instinct was that the profile was not that of an actual teenage girl and she immediately contacted the police. Following an investigation, 38-year-old Stephen Alexander Martin was arrested; he was a teacher at Eric’s elementary school. His 18 computer hard drives contained about 9,500 pictures of child pornography and almost 2,000 movies depicting children as young as twelve. Martin pleaded guilty to ten counts of internet luring and possession of child pornography in 2011. He was sentenced to prison for two years less a day. Martin was also placed on the sex offender registry for 10 years, prohibited from being in any public place where children might gather during that time, and his teaching license was revoked. Eric’s cooperation with police lead to about 50 other boys coming out and saying that Martin had contacted them posing as this young girl.
Exploitation may not always occur as the result of a stranger on the internet. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection warns that children and teens may involve themselves in self/peer exploitation by participating in ‘sexting’. There are cases where children unknowingly commit a crime by intentionally or inadvertently creating material which may fall under the criteria for child pornography. For example, if a teenager sends or shares with her friend a photo that shows a person who is under the age of 18 years (for example, her boyfriend) engaging in explicit sexual activity or that depicts his genitalia, she could be charged with distributing child pornography. It is important for children and teens to understand the laws surrounding child pornography do not just apply to adults and there could be serious implications for making or sharing pornographic materials.
Online Criminal Harassment
The RCMP defines online criminal harassment, or cyberstalking, as the use of repeated electronic communications to cause another person to feel like they, or a member of their family, are being threatened. As there are no laws specific to cyberstalking, this type of conduct falls under Section 264(1), criminal harassment, of the Criminal Code of Canada, which prohibits behaviours such as following, repeatedly communicating with, or watching a person in their home or workplace as well as engaging in threatening conduct toward that person or their family.
In March 2006, Jonathan Barnes was convicted of cyber harassing his ex girlfriend, Cari Benson. Barnes harassed Benson for two years after installing software on her computer to monitor her keystrokes, which enabled him to gain access to all of her passwords. Barnes sent explicit pictures of Benson from her own email to her family, friends, employer, and previous employer. Benson was not aware of this until her sister called to describe the email she had received from the victim. Barnes withdrew Benson’s school registration, put pictures of her online and chatted with strangers under her name. Benson was contacted by several strangers claiming they had spoken before on the internet and she invited them to come to her home or workplace. The judge sentenced Barnes to a year in prison stating that the crime was very serious and had far-reaching effects on the victim. Benson had to make a number of changes in her life as a result of these crimes, including moving, changing her phone number, finding a new job, changing her social insurance number and attending a different school.
It is important for Canadians to understand that there are consequences for individuals who commit acts of online criminal harassment just as with harassment committed in person. As with other forms of internet crime, it is important to save copies of harassing electronic communications and to report such incidents to local police.
Challenges for Law Enforcement
As discussed in the sections above, the relatively new legal issue of cyber crime provides unique challenges to law enforcement that are not found in physical crimes such as child luring, face-to-face bullying, extortion and harassment. In many cases the perpetrators are not in the same police jurisdiction that their victims are. This may make it more difficult for police to carry out an investigation. The recent increase in the access to the internet via smart phones, tablets and other portable electronic devices has made it easy for both predators and their victims to be connected at all times to the virtual world. It is important to follow the advice of the police in order to save all messages; block the sender from contacting you via the website’s security features and never reply to the messages; talk to someone you trust (an adult for children/teens); and contact your local police service in order to file a complaint.
As the use of the internet grows, so do the risks to its users. While it is important for all internet users to be aware of these risks, it is especially important for parents to prepare their children for possible dangers and to know how to deal with problems that may arise. Victims of cybercrimes have the same recourse as if the offense had been committed without the use of technology, although a conviction is sometimes more difficult to obtain. It is important to report cybercrimes to local police or reporting agency (i.e. Cybertip.ca) so that these crimes and their perpetrators can be dealt with according to the law.
Be Web Aware Website. Cyber Bullying. (http://www.bewebaware.ca/english/cyberbullying.html).
Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (https://www.protectchildren.ca/app/en/).
CBC News. Cyberstalker sentenced to one year. 2006. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/cyberstalker-sentenced-to-one-year-1.583770).
CBC News. Advice for Teens and Parents. 2013. (http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/blog/advice-for-teens-and-parents).
CBC News. N.S. cyberbullying legislation allows victims to sue. 2013. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/n-s-cyberbullying-legislation-allows-victims-to-sue-1.1307338).
CBC News. The Sextortion of Amanda Todd. 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2013-2014/the-sextortion-of-amanda-todd).