The Human Cost of the Dark Web

June 16, 2021

The human cost of the dark web


According to the United Nations’ most recent estimates, almost one in ten children worldwide are in child labor and while the rate has been steadily declining since 2000, Covid-19 has thrown this recent progress into jeopardy.


The pandemic created a perfect storm to increase vulnerabilities of children – exacerbating push and pull factors for child labor, including child sexual exploitation.  


Job losses, declining remittances and school closures meant that more children have been forced to work. At the same time, as the world went “virtual”, more children and adults than ever were online and at home.


This heightened the risk of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), which involves livestreaming child sexual abuse for compensation.


With new global estimates suggesting the number of children in child labour could rise to 168.9 million by 2022, and many OSEC hotpots (such as the Philippines) still in lockdown and without sufficient supply of vaccines, this issue is far from over. All about climate risk reporting here.


As we mark the 19th World Day Against Child Labour, we are facing an environment – online and offline – ripe for human trafficking.


Let’s look at the numbers on child sexual exploitation – one of the worst forms of child labour. According to an INTERPOL and ECPAT International report published in February 2018:


●     More than 60% of sexual exploitation victims were prepubescent

●     92% of offenders were male

●     65% of victims were girls and severe abuse images were more likely to feature boys


In the first months of the pandemic (from March 1 to May 24, 2020), the Philippine’s Department of Justice reported an alarming 202,605 cases of OSEC, which is a 265% increase from the same period in 2019.  


Sadly, facilitators of the abuse betray children’s trust in adults and are often the child’s relatives, including the children’s own mothers, or close family friends. 


The statistics are shocking, but more concerning is that this is a growing problem that requires greater public and law enforcement attention to combat. In a more recent report from INTERPOL released at the end of 2020, the Secretary General stated that we are ‘at the tip of a growing iceberg in terms of online child exploitation’ – and a large part of this can be attributed to the pandemic.


Limited access to community support services has severely impacted human trafficking as many incidents remain hidden and victims do not have access to safe places where they can seek help.


And the cost? Children.  


The dark web


Screen time among children has soared over the past year as social distancing restrictions led to school closures and a greater use of technology for everything from education to entertainment and connecting with friends.  


These changes happened quickly and without the sufficient guidance and safety measures in place, which has led to an exponential increase in self-generated child-sexual abuse content.  


With criminals able to share digital spaces with children through online games and messaging apps, offenders have groomed, deceived or extorted children, particularly girls aged 11 to 13, into producing and sharing sexual photos and videos of themselves.  


At the same time, the number of offenders paying to watch child sexual exploitation in real-time online has also risen.




Any form of child sexual abuse material is evidence of a crime against a child and is criminalised across the world.  


Even after an offender that produced child sexual abuse material is caught, the sharing of these materials online continues to re-victimise the child each time the material is shared and viewed.  


Law enforcement agencies face substantial challenges in suppressing this crime and prosecuting offenders because of the transnational nature of the offences, and the difficulties in tracing the origin of the material and identifying both victims and offenders.  


In recent years, traffickers also began to use the dark web to create marketplaces taking cryptocurrency payments for distributing and trading child sexual abuse material.  


While more research is needed about the size of this market, the use of cryptocurrency related to all illicit activities is estimated at $1-2 billion annually.


A recent example of cryptocurrency linked to sexual exploitation of children came to light in March 2020—The Nth Room in South Korea—where at least 16 minors were forced to upload videos of abusive sex acts for thousands of users who paid cryptocurrency to view it.


While Bitcoin transactions on a blockchain are very transparent in terms of the amount and time of a transaction, participants are represented only by their wallet address—a string of letters and numbers — and remain pseudonymous.


Tying the digital wallet address of a transaction back to a participants’ real-world identity is challenging, especially when the participant utilizes layering and anonymization techniques.


It's not impossible, however. Opportunities for deanonymization occur when participants convert Bitcoin to fiat currency or to another cryptocurrency.


Cryptocurrency exchanges with robust Anti Money Laundering (AML) programs routinely trace transactions using a blockchain analytics tool in order to identify whether a customer’s wallet has received or sent payments to a wallet with a known association to criminal activity.  


The regulation of cryptocurrency exchanges requiring “know your customer” and anti-money laundering monitoring is vital to identifying offenders engaged in the online sexual exploitation of children.


Step by step


The first step is understanding the size of the problem. This includes estimating the amount of cryptocurrency exchanged in dark-web forums and the number of potential victims at risk of exploitation.


A study by the International Justice Mission estimated that between 2013-2017 internet-based child sexual exploitation cases increased from 23,333 to 81,723.


However, the authors conceded that their data was limited because they could not determine if the cases themselves increased, or simply the reporting of them.


We still have a long way to go because as of yet, there are currently no estimates on the volumes of cryptocurrency used for online child sexual exploitation.


A joint effort


The challenge of child labour continues, in old forms and new. There are still many pockets of exploitation and abuse that remain hidden, such as child domestic work and child trafficking.


There are also emerging problems of sexual abuse and exploitation associated with the reach of the Internet and other new technologies like encrypted messaging services.


A broad range of people need to come together: anti-human trafficking programs, financial institutions, like banks and crypto exchanges, law enforcement all need to collaborate to share data that can lead to the identification of offenders.  


Beyond estimating the size of the problem, even more regulation of crypto exchanges across the globe and better monitoring of crypto transactions is needed to detect characteristics associated with human trafficking.


This information needs to be shared with intelligence firms, advisory members and law enforcement officials to help combat illicit activities.


There are only four short years left to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2025.


Whether through education, prevention or intervention, we need a proactive, joint effort to protect the millions of innocent children who could be at risk of exploitation sooner – and closer to home – than we think.


Diginex is doing a lot of work in this space and will be sharing more in the coming weeks, so watch this space!