The death of a 12-year-old boy in British Columbia who police and his family say fell victim to online sextortion has advocates warning the issue is getting worse in Canada.
For years, law enforcement and researchers have been warning about the dangers of rising incidents of criminals targeting minors through sextortion, calling the problem an “epidemic” that is leading to mental health issues and suicide. Despite some steps taken by governments and social media companies to increase safety online, the number of reported instances continues to rise.
“We have a public health emergency on our hands,” Signy Arnason, the associated executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP), told Global News in an interview.
Back in September, the CCCP’s national tip line for reporting online child sexual abuse, Cybertip.ca, reported they were receiving on average 40 reports of sextortion per week. Today, that number has increased to 50 per week.
Cybertip says when the gender of victims is known, 91 per cent of those targeted in sextortion cases have been male, with teen boys between the ages of 14 and 17 most likely to be impacted.
The agency says male victims are predominantly exploited for money, as opposed to female victims who are coerced into providing more sexual images.
Statistics Canada reported last year that police-reported extortion cases in Canada rose by nearly 300 per cent in the last decade. It also says non-consensual distribution of intimate images involving adult or child victims increased by 194 cases in 2021, a nine-per-cent jump from the year before, and a 52-per-cent increase compared with the previous five-year average.
Prince George RCMP, who reported 12-year-old Carson Cleland’s death, said it has received 62 reports of online sextortion so far this year — already surpassing the 56 reports received in 2022.
Carson, who took his life on Oct. 12, largely used Snapchat to talk with others, his family said. His mother told CKPG News in Prince George, B.C., that she and Carson’s father were already talking to their son about online safety and how to protect himself before he died, but urged other parents to be “more active” with their own kids.
Arnason said part of the issue is parents are being made to feel solely responsible for protecting their kids from online predators when it should be up to governments and tech companies to establish proper safety guardrails.
“We know it’s absolutely impossible to be managing your kids’ online activity because you’re not with them 24/7, but their devices are” she said. “We’ve unfairly saddled this issue on parents … and we feel like we’re screaming into an echo chamber. We need action. We need governments to step in. Otherwise we’re going to continue to talk about this.”
Police also say sextortion cases can be incredibly complex and time-consuming. Investigators can face extreme difficulty obtaining evidence — both the images and correspondence between the aggressor and the victim — because social media and online messaging platforms encrypt and often delete messages from their servers. Snapchat’s servers are designed to automatically delete all one-on-one and group-chat messages as soon as they’re viewed.
Cpl. Jennifer Cooper of Prince George RCMP told CKPG News that perpetrators of online sextortion have international reach, further complicating efforts to bring them to justice in Canada.
“You get into issues of ‘where are they?’ — having to trace IP addresses across continents — and ‘is this a crime in the country that they are residing in?'” she said. “So then we have to start looking at international crime (law), and that can be incredibly time-consuming. It’s very resource-intensive to do these sorts of investigations.”
Those complexities were made clear in the lengthy prosecution of the Dutch man convicted last year of extorting, blackmailing and harassing B.C. teen Amanda Todd, whose death by suicide in 2012 at the age of 15 thrust the issue of sextortion into the national spotlight.
Aydin Coban was first charged in 2014, but first had to face trial in the Netherlands for a series of related charges in his home country. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for those crimes in 2017, then finally extradited to Canada in 2020 to face trial for the charges related to Todd, which led to a conviction last year.
His 13-year sentence is to be served in the Netherlands after his current sentence ends next year, but has been delayed as an Amsterdam court considers amending it to one consistent with Dutch law, which could shorten the prison stint to four-and-a-half years.
In B.C., Todd’s case and a continued rise in sextortion incidents helped inspire the Intimate Images Protection Act, passed earlier this year, which creates an expedited legal process for victims to seek the removal of intimate images and videos uploaded to online platforms without their consent.
Other provinces including Manitoba, Alberta and Nova Scotia have similar laws and have sought to strengthen them in recent months. Manitoba’s updated law, for instance, shifts the burden of proof in lawsuits filed over shared images on the accused to show they had permission from the victim.
Federal legislation was adopted last month that adds sextortion to the list of offences that would require a perpetrator to register with the National Sex Offender Registry.
The Criminal Code of Canada made it illegal to share intimate images without consent in 2014, but the code does not include responsibility for online platforms that publish them, or compel them to comply with requests for removal.
Those platforms, including Instagram and Snapchat, have introduced updated safety measures in recent years. But most of them — like Snapchat’s new feature that warns minors if they are adding a follower who is not shared by mutual friends — puts the onus on the users. Parents can still enable controls that block sensitive content, but those don’t cover direct messages from followers.
Arnason said Canada should look to model new legislation on sweeping online safety laws passed in the United Kingdom and European Union. Those laws impose regulations on social media and tech platforms and opens the door for federal lawsuits against those that don’t actively crack down on explicit, non-consensual materials as well as hate speech and misinformation.
She added the urgency is further compounded by the rise of artificial intelligence. Last month, the U.K.-based Internet Watch Foundation warned that AI-generated deepfake images will overwhelm child exploitation investigators without government action.
“AI is an absolute nightmare in our space,” she said.
In a statement provided by his office, Justice Minister and Attorney General Arif Virani said he will continue to work with other ministers to introduce online harms legislation that includes protections against sexual exploitation of children — “but we must take time to do this properly,” he added, declining to give a timeline for when that bill — first promised in 2019 — may be tabled.
“Too much is at stake,” he said.
Cybertip and police urge victims of sextortion to cut off contact with perpetrators immediately and inform their parents or a trusted adult, while also keeping a copy of their communication. Victims should never give into the threats they may receive, or else the perpetrators will continue to act.
Parents are also being urged to foster open communication with their children and keep them regularly updated on the potential dangers of online platforms like social media.
But Arnason said she’s getting frustrated by continuing to repeat the same warnings to parents and children while governments and companies continue to delay action.
“Would you ever find a 12-year-old walking into a bar who is then murdered, and then everyone asks why the parents didn’t do more? No — you’d be holding the bar owner accountable for letting a minor into their facility,” she said.
—With files from the Canadian Press