Vol. 81, No. 4Cover stories

Man holding the hand of a young girl in a city.

Troubling trends

Global taskforce confronts growing online child exploitation

The Virtual Global Taskforce provides operational support and training to help police save and protect kids from online sexual exploitation.


The RCMP is helping lead international efforts to keep kids safe as part of the Virtual Global Taskforce. The taskforce, made up of 13 law enforcement agencies from across the globe, provides operational support, research and intelligence and training surrounding online child sexual exploitation.

The RCMP chairs the taskforce until 2021 and is working to increase proactive measures against online child sexual exploitation and develop a framework for investigator well-being.

RCMP C/Supt. Marie-Claude Arsenault, taskforce chair, says international collaboration is necessary when tackling the borderless crime.

"One country can't do this work alone," says Arsenault, who oversees the RCMP Sensitive and Specialized Investigative Services Branch. "It would be impossible."

Incidents of online child sexual exploitation have proliferated. In 2017, Statistics Canada reported a 233 per cent increase in child exploitation incidents over the past decade.

Partners in protection

Due to the crime's global nature, police forces often work together tracking down consumers and producers of the illegal content. Officers share tips and work together to ensure one police operation doesn't interfere with or duplicate another. It's especially important in anonymous online places like the dark web.

"If we don't collaborate, we can hurt each other," says Arsenault. "A country might want to shut down a server while another is investigating a prominent offender. If that server is shut down, it can jeopardize the investigation."

Cpl. Charity Sampson, a victim identification investigator with the RCMP National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre, says the process ensures efficient use of officer time.

"Any duplication is time that could be spent helping another child," says Sampson.

Sampson says RCMP officers talk daily with international partners to provide awareness and share tips.

"Jurisdiction is often unknown and we need to collaborate to try to locate a victim," says Sampson. "One country may take this part and another country will take that part, and together we solve a crime."

The taskforce partners with about 20 industry and non-governmental organizations providing knowledge and technology in the fight against online sexual exploitation.

Attending the taskforce's twice-annual meetings provides companies insights to the barriers police face and allows them to develop new technology and tools.

"Knowing what the operational realties are can open up these partners to decide what they can do differently," says Roberta Sinclair, who manages the Strategic and Operational Services Unit of the RCMP Sensitive and Specialized Investigative Services.

Companies approach the taskforce when aiming to reduce the likelihood their platform and software are used for exploitative purposes.

"A lot of the industry wants to do something, but they're limited in the tools they can develop because the material is illegal to possess," Arsenault says.

Non-governmental organization partners provide the taskforce with insights to the reality of child sexual abuse around the world and share their research with law enforcement.

Maintaining wellness

Officer well-being is a particular concern when confronting online sexual exploitation as investigators routinely encounter graphic images.

The taskforce is currently researching the stress and burnout among officers in internet exploitation units around the world. The project includes an academic literature review and an international survey. It culminates with a report recommending promising practices for officer well-being.

"These recommendations are not particular to Canadian investigators or Australian investigators," says Sinclair. "They are applicable across every country."

The survey includes police personnel who currently or previous worked with online exploitation units.

"We know a lot of the impacts from working in these units might not come out until someone has left the unit or a few years later," says Sinclair.

The research also looks at the positive aspects of working with the units.

"Normally you hear about the negatives, but we have heard working in these units can be very rewarding," says Sinclair.

Sampson says her work identifying child victims makes it her most fulfilling job yet.

"Once you see a child in the worst moment of their life, you want to work tirelessly to rescue them," she says.

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