Flash raid across Kerala nets 11 online child predators

Flash raid across Kerala nets 11 online child predators
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In a flash statewide hunt for online paedophiles on October 12, the CCSE (Counter Child Sexual Exploitation) Unit for Kerala Police has arrested 11 people for viewing, sharing and distributing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on social media. With this the number of paedophiles netted this year in the three CCSE raids, known officially as 'P-Hunt', has risen to 37.

The CCSE Unit came into being in January this year at the Hi-tech cell and Kerala Police Cyberdome. The Unit, which keeps constant and intense tabs on online behaviour in Kerala, works in close contact with the INTERPOL-Crimes against Children Unit and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC). Kerala Police is observing 2019 as the 'Year of Cyber Security'.

Using state-of-the-art apps, the CCSE Unit first identifies Kerala-based groups that deal in CSAM and report the content to popular instant messaging app services like WhatApp and Telegram. "We have to first give them information about the vile content we have picked up using our apps, complete with screenshots. They will then check the content, and if found illegal by their standards, they will provide us the email ID, phone numbers, and also the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) numbers of the devices, of the group admins," said Starmon R Pillai, Inspector of Police, Hi Tech Crime Enquiry Cell. Groups like 'Alamban', 'Adholokam' and 'Neelakurinji' are being closely monitored.

The raids were conducted under the direct supervision of Manoj Abraham, the Additional Director General of Police and State Nodal Officer, Cyberdome.

"Understanding that child pornographic videos and images are being largely circulated among the people through social media, the CCSE Unit of Kerala Police had started a special drive titled P-Hunt and in the first operation in April 21, 14 were arrested. During P-Hunt II, which was conducted in June, 12 people were arrested," Manoj Abraham said. Digital access and resources were provided by INTERPOL and ICMEC, he said.

Most of child pornographic groups are now active on WhatsApp and Telegram. Since these platforms have robust encryption, anonymity is guaranteed. A group's conversations are so protected that even WhatsApp or Telegram cannot butt in. WhatsApp, despite being bombarded with proof of child porn on its platform, still stands by end-to-end encryption. WhatsApp insists that theirs is a platform for free speech, perhaps the only space where political dissidents are free to air their views.

Nonetheless, it has also stated that action would be taken if violations are pointed out. It does its own combing operations, too. Like Kerala Police, WhatsApp also swears by a zero-tolerance policy around child sexual abuse. "We deploy our most advanced technology, including artificial intelligence, to scan profile photos and images in reported content, and actively ban accounts suspected of sharing this vile content," said a public statement by WhatsApp early this year.

In fact, without being prodded by the CCSE Unit, WhatsApp itself had recently identified and banned a Kerala-based group of 126 members dealing in child porn. These 126 persons are under the close watch of the police. "But we have no evidence to arrest them as their content was taken down by WhatsApp," Starmon said.

The October 12 raids were organized under the direct supervision of the District Police Chiefs and they were assisted by the shadow teams and a specially trained cyber Team. As a part of the operation, raids were conducted at various places and in 21 locations the teams could seize the devices- mobile phones, modems, hard disks, memory cards, laptops, and computers - with videos and pictures of children.

Though only 11 were arrested in the raids, eight more are under the scanner of the anti-pornography unit. "The CSAM content that we have seized from these eight persons have been handed over to the Forensic Science Laboratory. We want to be sure it deals with child pornography before we could arrest them," Starmon said.

Under the law, viewing, distributing or storing of any child pornographic content is a criminal offense and can result in up to five years imprisonment and up to Rs 10 lakh fine. "Kerala Police seeks the support of the community, in this project and if any member of the public comes across any such channels or groups that spread child sex-related content, we urge you to please inform Hi Tech Crime Enquiry Cell, Cyberdome or Cyber cells at the earliest, considering that child security as the responsibility of the society," Manoj Abraham said.

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