Last month, a Brisbane man was convicted of a number of sexual offences after he was duped into performing a sex act in front of a computer-generated avatar of a 10-year-old girl.
The fake child, known as Sweetie, was created by Dutch child rights organisation Terre de Hommes to catch child sex offenders who participate in web-based exploitation of young children.
Scott Robert Hansen had already been convicted of sex offences including possession of pornography and trying to abduct a child in 2010.
After the Sweetie incident, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for breaching the terms of his sex offenders order, possessing images of child abuse, and sending obscene images to a child, and will be required to undergo a sexual offenders’ rehabilitation program.
Hansen, 37, contacted Sweetie in 2013.
He then sent Sweetie obscene pictures of himself, and performed a lewd act on the camera in front of her.
He also asked her if she would get her fictional eight-year-old sister involved.
Although resembling a 10-year-old girl, the avatar was completely fake and was operated by charity workers who gathered as many details about Hansen as possible while he was chatting to them, and passed the information to Australian authorities.
The operation that caught Hansen ran for 10 weeks in 2013, during which time the organisation said 20,000 men contacted Sweetie, 1,000 of whom offered to pay her to get undressed in front of the webcam.
The men came from a total of 71 different countries and their details have been passed on by the organisation to the relevant law enforcement authorities.
According to workers who were involved in the project, Hansen wasn’t the worst of the men who approached Sweetie during that time.
So far Hansen is the first person to have been convicted as a result of the operation, and it’s unknown how many of the suspects are being investigated.
How widespread is web-based sexual tourism?
The Sweetie case has drawn worldwide attention to the problem of webcam child sexual tourism, which is believed to be growing, especially in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.
Web-based sexual tourism is when men pay children in another country (usually a poorer country) to perform sexual acts over a webcam.
This can be anything from taking off their clothes to having sex with other children or adults.
According to Terre de Hommes, it is hard to know exactly how many children are involved in webcam-based exploitation as it is very difficult to detect, and children rarely come forward.
The organisation estimates that web-based sexual tourism affects tens of thousands of children in the Philippines alone.
With internet access rates climbing in poorer countries like those in South East Asia, it’s likely that the problem will continue to grow over the next few years.
Terre de Hommes predicts that webcam-based exploitation is likely to grow rapidly into an uncontrollable global industry dominated by organised crime syndicates and linked to human trafficking unless intervention takes place.
Often the children who are used for these activities come from poverty-stricken backgrounds and can be extremely vulnerable.
Their parents may believe that because no physical contact occurs, online sexual exploitation is less harmful than child prostitution, although there is often a great deal of emotional trauma experienced by children who have been involved in these activities.
Webcam sexual exploitation can start and finish online, but it can also be a precursor to physical contact and abuse.
The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported on a registered sex offender who was found by detectives transferring small amounts of money to Indonesia, suspected to be for online “pay per view” activities.
A short time later, he was found travelling to the same place for an extended period of time, where it is believed he may have had access to the children he was exploiting online.
What is the appeal for offenders?
Webcam-based sexual tourism is growing in popularity partially due to convenience, but also because it leaves less evidence than downloading and storing child pornography or accessing children in person.
Much of the material is live streamed over the internet, instead of downloaded, so it doesn’t leave a record on the offender’s computer.
It is also relatively inexpensive and easy to access, which can add to its appeal and popularity with child sex offenders.
How many people have been convicted of web-based sexual offences?
As it is still relatively new and very difficult to detect, so far only six people have been convicted of these types of offences around the world, according to Terre de Hommes.
Legally, webcam sexual exploitation is a cross between pornography and child prostitution and most countries don’t have specific laws in place to deal with these activities.
After her 10-week operation last year, Sweetie has been officially retired and is no longer in use, but this case does show how the technology could potentially be used to catch people in the future.