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64 people charged in massive Ontario child exploitation investigation

Click to play video: 'OPP online child exploitation investigation leads to 64 people being charged'
OPP online child exploitation investigation leads to 64 people being charged
WATCH: The OPP announced staggering numbers Wednesday in an online child exploitation investigation involving police services across the province. Jaden Lee-Lincoln reports on how it's become a growing issue – May 8, 2024

The Ontario Provincial Police say 64 people have been charged in a large-scale child exploitation investigation across the province where 34 child victims were identified.

Another 30 children were “safeguarded,” police said, which means removing a child who is in a dangerous position and who could be offended against.

The investigation, dubbed Project Aquatic, involved 27 police forces across Ontario who identified and arrested several people for allegedly making, possessing and distributing child sexual abuse material, police said.

OPP Det. Sgt. Tim Brown told reporters on Wednesday there was one instance of luring where a person had engaged with an undercover officer online who allegedly wanted to meet with a child in real life for a sexual purpose.

There was another person who was allegedly in possession of about 21 terabytes of data on multiple devices and hard drives containing child sexual abuse material, Brown said.

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“One terabyte can store up to 250,000 photos or 500 hours of video,” Brown said.

“For every device seized, an officer or analyst examines each photo and video, which can take several weeks,” Brown said. “The time spent on each child sexual abuse investigation only grows with the continued increase of storage.”

Click to play video: 'Project Aquatic: OPP charges 64 individuals with over 300 charges in child exploitation investigation'
Project Aquatic: OPP charges 64 individuals with over 300 charges in child exploitation investigation

Brown said with each passing year, the tools used by predators “grows more sophisticated and harder to trace” from encryption, to the dark web, to AI-generated images.

“With the advent of AI-generated images, our task to differentiate between real and synthetic victims adds yet another element to our efforts in apprehending those who make, possess access and distribute child sexual abuse material,” he said.

Among those charged, police said more than 348 charges were laid and 607 electronic devices were seized.

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Brown said those charged are of all age ranges, including teenagers to senior citizens. He also said a few of those were out on bail for other offenses.

When it comes to victims, Brown said investigators have seen victims as young as infants right through to early teens and teenage years, anyone under the age of 18 as per the Criminal Code’s definition.

Police said since 2006, the Provincial ICE strategy — which focuses on internet child exploitation and protecting children from online predators — has laid more than 29,000 charges through tens of thousands of investigations and almost 4,000 children have been identified, supported and protected.

Click to play video: 'Stats Can numbers show startling rise in online sexual exploitation of children'
Stats Can numbers show startling rise in online sexual exploitation of children

Signy Arnason, associate director of Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said through their work, they have seen growing networks online of adults with sexual interest in children.

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Arnason said the online communities share child sexual abuse material, and even encourage one another to share tactics that include “how-to manuals.”

“They normalize the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Many within these communities obsess over certain victims, try to locate them, and even stalk them well into adulthood,” Arnason said.

“Environments like the dark web fester and facilitate this conduct,” she continued. “AI-generated images have tipped the scale on an already epidemic-sized issue.”

Arnason said that last year they received almost 30,000 reports through cybertip.ca — Canada’s national tip line to report the online sexual exploitation and abuse of children — and 23 per cent came from Ontario.

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