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Sextortion boom coincides with pandemic’s online shift, as experts raise alarm

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VANCOUVER — The mass shift online brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a boom of so-called “sextortion scams,” new data from Statistics Canada suggests.

As authorities aim to educate youth and parents about online sex crimes, experts are calling for more regulation, education and law enforcement.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, occurs when someone threatens to distribute private, often sexually explicit, material online if the victim doesn’t comply with their demands, usually for money.

The crime gained national attention almost a decade ago when 15-year-old Amanda Todd from Port Coquitlam, B.C., died by suicide after posting a video where she used flash cards to describe being tormented by an anonymous cyberbully. It has been watched more than 14 million times.

The trial of her alleged harasser, Dutch national Aydin Coban, began in the B.C. Supreme Court in June.

He pleaded not guilty to extortion, harassment, communication with a young person to commit a sexual offence and possession and distribution of child pornography. He was not charged in relation to Todd’s death.

Closing arguments in the case wrapped earlier this week and the jury is now deliberating.

Signy Arnason, associate executive director at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said the issue has grown exponentially since Todd took her life in October 2012.

“It’s out of control,” she said in an interview.

Police across the country have been issuing warnings to the public about sextortion scams targeting youth.

“Unfortunately, police around the world have tragically seen some of these incidents end in victims taking their own lives,” Nova Scotia RCMP Internet Child Exploitation Unit Cpl. Mark Sobieraj said in a news release last week. “We’re urging parents and guardians to talk with children about the potential dangers, emphasizing that they can come to you for help.”

Statistics Canada data released Tuesday shows police-reported extortion cases in Canada rose by nearly 300 per cent in the last decade, but the crime significantly rose during the pandemic.

Incidents of non-consensual distribution of intimate images involving adult or child victims increased by 194 cases in 2021, representing a nine per cent jump from the year before, and a 52 per cent increase compared with the previous five-year average.

“These concerning increases are being facilitated by social media platforms and other electronic services providers,” said the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s executive director, Lianna McDonald, in a news release. “It should be a wake-up call.”

Cybertip.ca, a national tip line for reporting online child sexual abuse, said it has received “an unprecedented volume of reports from youth and sometimes their concerned parents about falling prey to aggressive sextortion tactics,” amounting to about 300 online extortion cases a month.

Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, said the increase could be partly explained by awareness and better policing of cybercrime, but noted research also suggests that online child sexual abuse often goes unreported.

A review of the 322 sextortion cases Cybertip.ca received in July found that when gender was known, 92 per cent of them involved boys or young men.

“The review also showed an emerging tactic where the victim is sent nude images of children from the person behind the fake account. The offender will then threaten to report the victim to police, claiming they are in possession of child sexual abuse material. Demands for money immediately follow,” the child protection centre said in a news release this week.

David Fraser, an internet and privacy lawyer with the Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said a main reason some youth may not come forward is they believe they could be charged with child pornography of their own image. He said this is a wide misconception, sometimes even among law enforcement.

“We need to be very careful about the messaging we send to young people, just to make sure that there are safe places that they can go to and get support before things escalate,” Fraser said.

He cited a 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that established a “personal use” exception to the child pornography provisions. It said young people have a right to create intimate images of themselves as long as they don’t depict illegal sexual activity, are held only for private use, and were created with the consent of the people in the image.

Fraser would like to see more police resources and education around the issue.

“I have generally seen across the board a lack of skill and competence on the part of police to take existing laws and translate them into the online context,” he said.

“Extortion is extortion whether you’re extorting somebody by threatening to disclose nude pictures that you have extorted them to provide, or whether you’re extorting somebody through other forms of more conventional blackmail.”

Molly Reynolds, a lawyer with Torys LLP in Toronto, said her civil caseload on sexual extortion has increased significantly.

“The demand is huge. It is at least a 10-year-old crisis, and we are just beginning to understand it more broadly across Canada,” she said. “There are still a lot of people who really don’t get police attention when they do report this criminal conduct.”

She said civil court tends to be a better option for adult victims who know their perpetrator.

“You’re more likely to see a law enforcement response if it can fall into the child pornography offences, and not just the non-consensual distribution offences or voyeurism ones,” she said.

“(Children) are, in some ways, better served through the criminal procedure, whereas adults, I think, are more often having to turn to the civil procedures.”

Darren Laur, chief training officer at White Hatter, an internet safety and digital literacy education company, said the law has not kept up with technological advancements.

He said so-called deep fakes, in which an existing image or video is used to create fake but believable video footage, will create new challenges because extortionists will no longer need to coerce a person to perform explicit acts.

“The reality is people are going to use the goodness of technology and sometimes weaponize it. That’s the problem with deep fakes. I perceive that deep fakes are going to be weaponized, especially when it comes to tech-facilitated sexual abuse,” said Laur, who is a retired Victoria police sergeant.

Reynolds agreed but said she doesn’t think the law will ever be able to “keep up with technology and the harms it can create.”

“There is a really big role, I think, for the courts to interpret what we already have, and allow it to evolve just as the technological risks evolve. We need to be able to make it easier for people to get these cases to court, whether criminal or civil, and to test the boundaries,” she said.

McDonald, with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, has begun calling for more regulation of social media companies, including Snapchat and Instagram, where the organization has found most of the harm to children occurs.

“This is an ongoing problem that is getting worse, and so it really does beg the question about what are these companies doing to keep children safe? It is incredulous that social media platforms allow total adult strangers to directly reach out and target our children without any consequence,” she said in a news release Thursday.

Laur said he has been calling for years for the creation of an online regulatory agency, like Australia’s eSafety Commissioner.

“They basically have the blueprint on how to do this,” he said. “We need something similar here in our country.”

The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement the federal government “is currently developing an approach to address harmful content online, which includes the potential creation of a regulatory body.”

As part of this process, it said Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is “currently conducting roundtables across Canada to hear from victims of online harm, including children and youth.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2022.

 

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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A year after the fall of Kabul, Canadian veterans urge Ottawa not to abandon Afghans trying to flee – CBC News

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It’s been one year since Kabul fell to the Taliban after American and allied troops — including Canadians — left the country.

Video footage showed Afghans streaming onto the tarmac at the Kabul airport, desperate to escape, as a U.S. air force plane took off. Some fell to their death trying to hold on.

“We watched that terrible situation unfold … we saw that tremendous catastrophe that happened in Kabul,” said Brian Macdonald.

A Canadian veteran who served in Afghanistan, Macdonald leads the non-profit Aman Lara, which is Pashto for “Sheltered Path.” The collective of Canadian veterans and former interpreters has been working over the last year to bring refugees to safety in Canada.

“When we were unable to get them out a year ago, it was devastating. But since then we’ve come together, we’ve doubled down and been able to get 3,000 people out,” he said.

But it’s been a slow and dangerous process when those refugees need to go through the Taliban to get a passport.

“These people that have helped Canada now have to stand up and go to an office that’s controlled by the Taliban and give their name and address and the dates of birth of their children,” Macdonald said.

“It’s a very dangerous thing to do.”

Brian Macdonald, the executive director of Aman Lara, says the non-profit has successfully helped more than 3,000 Afghan refugees to safety in Canada since Kabul fell to the Taliban one year ago. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

There was hope this June, when Pakistan agreed to temporarily allow Afghan refugees approved to come to Canada across its border, without a passport or visa.

But Macdonald says they’ve hit roadblocks bringing those refugees to Canada.

“We were hoping it would be thousands, and it ended up being dozens,” he said.

“We’re dealing with the Afghan-Pakistani border, and it’s a very wild place. And so messages aren’t always clearly communicated, but we believe the window may still be open.”

Ottawa promises to speed up application process

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Canada has added more employees on the ground to process applications as quickly as possible, including in Pakistan.

The department did not say how many undocumented Afghans have successfully made it to Canada through the arrangement with Pakistan.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, Italian coalition forces assist and escort evacuees for onward processing during an evacuation at the Kabul, Afghanistan airport on Aug. 24. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)

Canada initially said it would bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada — focusing on Afghans who were employed by the Canadian government and military. The federal government says that, to date, it has welcomed 17,300, with more still to arrive “in the coming weeks and months.”

“We remain steadfast in our collective resolve to bring vulnerable Afghans to safety in Canada as quickly as possible,” says a joint statement released Monday by Fraser, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan.

The statement does not indicate when Ottawa expects to reach its target of resettling 40,000 Afghans.

In the statement, the ministers lamented what they called the “steady deterioration” of human and democratic rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power last year, citing the reintroduction of severe restrictions on the ability of women and girls to go to school and to move freely within the country.

‘We can hold our heads high,’ says deputy PM about evacuation

But the federal government has been criticized for not doing more to help Afghans who assisted Canada in the NATO-led effort and are now at risk of being killed by the Taliban for their ties to Western nations.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said “we need to not think in the past tense” when asked if Canada could have done more a year ago.

“We can hold our heads up high when we think about our response compared to that of our allies. There is a lot more work to do,” Freeland said in Toronto on Thursday.

“We need to keep on working to bring more people from Afghanistan to Canada, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Deputy prime minister answers questions about Afghanistan

4 days ago

Duration 2:23

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canada’s priority is to focus on the women and children of Afghanistan ‘who have suffered real setbacks.’

Last month, Canada stopped accepting new applications to its special immigration program, a move that advocates say amounts to the abandoning of Afghans desperate to come to this country.

Macdonald hopes the federal government reconsiders its approach and commits to welcoming every Afghan who helped the government into Canada.

“A year ago, we were panicking to get as many people out as possible,” Macdonald said.

“We all thought — as veterans and other interpreters — that that window had closed, that the people we didn’t get out were stuck in Afghanistan.

“But what we’ve learned over the last year is we can still move them out. It’s at a snail’s pace. It’s not as many people as we’d like. But we are still grinding away every day, moving people out of Afghanistan.  And we’re just going to keep doing that until we get as many people out as we possibly can.”

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Maritime veterans working to bring Afghans to Canada – CTV News Atlantic

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John Monaghan’s connection to Afghanistan has withstood the 13 years since his tour there.

The Nova Scotia man and his family keep in constant contact — daily — with a man he met there, who worked with the Canadian military. A man he refers to as “Mr. Jones,” to keep his identity hidden from the Taliban.

The Monaghan’s have been lobbying and fundraising to bring Mr. Jones, his wife, his four older siblings and their large families to Nova Scotia.

But he says, at this point, one year after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, they’re still in limbo.

“You can tell that he’s worried, he’s definitely worried about everything that’s going on,” Monaghan said. “It’s just really frustrating. They need to move these people out of danger and here to Canada, to safety.”

Aman Lara — Pashto for “Sheltered Path” — is an organization that was born after the takeover a year ago, to try and bring as many Afghan interpreters to Canada as possible.

Its executive director is New Brunswicker Brian Macdonald, who also served in Afghanistan. Macdonald says it’s become an urgent passion project for many veterans across the country.

“A year ago, we saw those terrible scenes of people getting crushed trying to leave Kabul. At that time, we thought the window had closed, we weren’t going to be able to get any more people out. But in that year, we’ve doubled down, and we’ve now got 3,000 people out of Afghanistan,” he said.

He says they’ve been working with teams in many different locations, but the bureaucracy in several countries — including Canada — is high.

Their focus is on securing the safety of another 3,000 people, and believe the work will take years to complete.

“There’s some people on our team who still haven’t gotten their families out. We work with these interpreters very closely, they’re here in Canada but their families are still stuck in Afghanistan. So there’s a lot left to do for sure,” he said.

Macdonald believes there are about 8,000 people in Afghanistan right now, who’ve been approved to travel to Canada. But there are thousands more who are eligible, but have yet to be accepted.

“For the Government of Canada, we want them to extend the special immigration measures program, and that will allow us to get everyone that served Canada out of Afghanistan,” he said. “So we don’t think there should be a cap on that in terms of numbers, and we don’t think there should be a timeline on that. Let’s take as long as it takes to get everyone who helped Canada out of Afghanistan.”

On Monday’s difficult anniversary, Monaghan hopes Canadians take a moment to think about the people of Afghanistan.

“Mostly, I would like people to think about how comfortable and happy and safe they are and then in comparison think about the lives that these families are living in Kabul, in terror, where they are afraid for their lives.”

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Public hearings in Emergencies Act inquiry to start in September

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OTTAWA — The inquiry into Ottawa’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act during protests in February will start its public hearings next month.

The Public Order Emergency Commission announced today that it expects the hearings to run from Sept. 19 until Oct. 28 at Library and Archives Canada in downtown Ottawa.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau said in a statement that he intends to hold the government to account and wants the inquiry to be as “open and transparent” as possible.

Hearings will be livestreamed online and members of the public will have opportunities to share their views, with a final report expected early next year.

Parties to the inquiry including “Freedom Convoy” organizers, police forces and all three levels of government are expected to testify and contribute documentary evidence on the invocation of the act in February.

The federal Liberals made the move amid border blockades and the occupation of downtown Ottawa by protesters demonstrating against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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