As her classroom moved online during the pandemic, 16-year old Preeti (name changed) got a brand new mobile phone to carry on with her studies. With it came an introduction to social media and end-to-end chatting apps. The young girl from Alwar district of Rajasthan soon met Amit (name changed) on ShareChat and friendship blossomed, leading her to elope with him.
Three months later, she was rescued from Patiala in Punjab, after a relentless probe and pursuit by police. Many others, however, are never found.
Confined to the digital world due to COVID restrictions over the last two years, traffickers are scouring online classrooms, gaming platforms, matrimonial sites, dating apps, end-to-end chat apps and even loan apps for potential victims.
In the small towns and villages of India—especially in States which are already known as hotbeds of trafficking such as Rajasthan, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh—women and children are being abused, blackmailed and trafficked through the web.
COVID exacerbated situation
A study on changing trends in online abuse and trafficking of women and children done in these four States shows that 44% of respondents started using the internet only after the outbreak of COVID. It also found that 98% of respondents use cheaper devices like smart phones to access the internet. 51% use it for school or college work, more than 56% for social media, almost 42% for e-commerce and 35% for online gaming.
The study, conducted by Space2Grow and CyberPeace Foundation, further goes on to show that among those who had felt uncomfortable during an online interaction, 53% responded by simply blocking the sender. About 31% told the sender that they were uncomfortable, 25% ignored them, 21% deleted the posts, almost 16% deleted their social media accounts, and 8% relented to the sender’s request after repeatedly saying no to them.
Experts feel that it is these 8% who are at serious risk. The modus operandi of predators ranges from luring somebody through relationships, blackmailing them by morphing their social media photographs, and offering loans which are difficult to pay back in cash.
In fact, there has been a global explosion of such exploitation and India is leading it. According to the U.S.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber tipline report for 2021, India accounts for 4.69 million reports of online abuse of children out of the 29.3 million reports worldwide, the highest of any country.
First connect in cyberspace
“Child-grooming, which encompasses access and isolation, trust building, desensitisation and coercing and forcing into trafficking, are the tactics which are used,” says Sundar Krishnan, executive director of the India Child Protection Fund. “Online sextortion often leads to physical abuse and trafficking,” he added.
Traffickers in small towns where access to the internet has increased due to Covid are now using the web to zero in on their victims, activists working on the ground say.
“All of the things related to abuse and trafficking of children and women have moved to the cyber space. The first connect happens on cyber platforms,” says Rakesh Tiwari of the NGO Prayatna who works in Rajasthani districts like Bharatpur. “The traffickers study social media profiles and identify possible victims who are active like posting selfies, videos or photographs.”
Then the discussion starts. It could be a good job offer, a good match on a matrimonial site or dating website, which leads to virtual relationships. Following this is the loop — requests for intimate pictures, sextortion, and eventual trafficking.
Exploiting new technology
Traffickers are increasingly using new and innovative digital platforms like instant loan apps, gaming sites, and deep fake technology.
“For example, once you download an instant loan app, they immediately ask for permission to access your information like the photo gallery and messages. Then the blackmailing starts and further exploitation starts happening. The girl or woman can later be pushed to trafficking,” says Vineet Kumar, founder and president of Cyberpeace Foundation.
Deep fake technology is another tool to spread misinformation as it can be used to morph and circulate even a normal photograph. Monetary transactions to traffickers are also often done through crypto currencies, says Mr. Kumar.
The only way out is better awareness among women and children as well as better training for law enforcement agencies and technology platforms.
Cyber experts point out that privacy settings are extremely important on social media. Awareness is also needed about avoiding digital activities like taking up challenges which involve sharing photographs or videos online.
It is also important to build the capability of law enforcement officials. We need to create a legal deterrence through enhanced detection mechanisms for online and human interface, says Mr. Krishnan. “The number one thing which we are trying to bring in is a paradigm shift in changing the discourse of child porn as an organized economic crime. It is a thriving multi-billion-dollar industry like a tech unicorn,” he says.
On its part, the government has worked to create awareness through programmes like Digital Shakti, where women are taught how to be safe online. The National Crime Records Bureau has a tie-up with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, a U.S.-based NGO. All cases of online child abuse and missing children are supposed to be reported to them, especially by manufacturers of electronic devices.