WhatsApp: A Tool of Abuse?

Hand holding phone with WhatsApp symbol on it

While the company has a zero-tolerance policy towards child sexual abuse, it has become quite easy for people to use WhatsApp to promote Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM).

The short messaging app that we all depend on these days for chatting, making video calls, sharing quick information, jokes or delicious recipes has a major flaw. Of course, any new technological advancement has its pros or cons but the app seems to have faltered in fixing it. And the app is none other than Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) shows a steady increase in crimes against children, more specifically child sexual abuse. It also says that people who are close family members often exploit children. But WhatsApp has added another dimension to it. While the company has a zero-tolerance policy towards child sexual abuse, it has become quite easy for people to use the app to promote Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM).

It first came into the limelight when two Israel-based NGOs — Netivei Reshet and Screensaverz — kept an eye on certain people who were spreading CSAM. Unlike the chats and messages which are encrypted by WhatsApp to ensure privacy of the user, certain people promoting CSAM can be easily identified through the profile pictures they use or with the group name.

The NGOs said that despite this WhatsApp failed to identify such people. The NGOs revealed that there were many Indian contacts as well among these groups. Similar reports came out in November 2018, when an Indian NGO, Cyber Peace Foundation, revealed that there were a few third-party applications that could easily provide public links to such groups. And joining such groups was just a click away.

The Indian government took the issue very seriously and asked WhatsApp to hand over the details of such people. However, the tech company mentioned its privacy policy and end-to-end encryption does not allow it to do so.

Over the past three months, the company has banned around 2.5 lakh accounts every month, based on the unencrypted data. Even Google and Apple have taken off such third-party apps from their platforms in order to curb the menace. But the Foundation has revealed that such groups are still operational. They have certainly changed their modus operandi. The research reveals that while the third party apps have been removed, the .apk files are still available online. In other words, people can still search for these files, download .apk versions and join these groups with publicly available invite links. In fact, these groups can easily be identified with their names, as they openly seek CSAM. In most of the cases, the group images or display pictures show obscene or sexual activity, often involving children or minors. Some media reports have suggested that these groups are named like “cp,”. Here, ‘cp’ stands for ‘child porn’.

The report also suggests that some of these groups reach their maximum membership limit within a few minutes of their formation. Some of the groups are formed with rules like “only cp videos”, “Must send 10 videos per day to every member. If any member does not send I’ll remove him without warning”. And there are several groups, which solicit physical contact with children or even with adults at a price with details like coverage area, time, etc. In other words, that which initially seemed to be only content, actually may result in physical contact with the child. Imagine your child falling prey to such activities and leading a scarred life, without having the guts to inform you what he/she has gone through. Or a close contact forcing your child to do certain acts for the purpose of a picture or a video shoot and sharing it on such groups. And someone then expresses the desire to touch your child and even going beyond that for a few bucks!

In other words, what we as educated citizens, were trying to tackle by educating our children on what is termed as a good touch or bad touch, may not be enough to ensure their safety. Yes, it is important to teach them about their body parts, their sanctity, their rights or having a no-secret policy. We have to be equally cautious of what happens in their surroundings, especially in schools, or playgrounds. For parents, that seems to be the only way out. It is very important to tell your child that no one should take pictures of their private parts. And the last would be to tell them, how to come out of such scary or uncomfortable situations. As parents, you can devise certain code words which your child can use to alert you during a party or when you have guests at home or they play, etc. Often perpetrators tell children, “I love playing with you, but if you tell someone else what we played they won’t let me come over again”. Or it can be a threat: “This is our secret. Don’t tell this to anyone. If you tell this to anyone, I will tell, it was your idea. You will be in big trouble.” As a parent, it is necessary to alert your child.

As for WhatsApp, or for that matter any game or tech app, if your children use it, you need to use certain parental controls to ensure that he/she does not fall prey to such online abuse or he/she is not exposed to such groups which can be easily joined, as children and adolescents have the tendency of exploring new things. Sometimes, they may land themselves in trouble. The only key to ensure that your child tells you everything is not to question but to be as friendly as possible. Make them feel comfortable so that they tell you everything, without being judgmental and avoiding those usual statements that start with: “If you did this… you would land in trouble” or “this may harm you”. Such statements often arouse their curiosity to an extent that they may try certain things. A more effective way of making kids aware could be in a story form, alerting them of the consequences or showing them videos or movies or illustrative books, and then answering their questions in a polite and non-judgemental way. Trust is one of the most important factors while dealing with children. You may at times be worried about your own personal or work life, but it is important to listen to your child carefully. A slight lack of interest may send the wrong signals. Your child may not feel comfortable and may not share issues that he may be facing, perhaps on the school premises or in the bus that he uses for travelling from and to the school, or in the playground or in those four walls that is termed as the most safe zone — our home.

WhatsApp has promised to upscale its capacities to control such groups or accounts known for spreading CSAM. Parents should do their bit in educating their child, understanding any slight change in his/her behaviour and most importantly, by listening carefully and taking appropriate action. While there is no way of eradicating child sexual abuse fully, it can certainly be reduced if parents start this conversation early on with their child. And reinforce it as frequently as possible.

Jaswant Kaur
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Jaswant Kaur

Jaswant Kaur, a company secretary, is the Executive Director of Deepalaya and can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com