Covert Online Surveillance of Child Predators: Exploring the Legal Boundaries
The investigation of child sex predators in the online environment has led police in some countries to use "sting operations", posing as children in chat rooms and other social media to interact with suspected child groomers. In more complex investigations, police have assumed the online identities of members of child exploitation rings in order to penetrate these often highly protected Networks
Covert methods of this kind are justified by the imperative of acting in a pre-emptive manner, recognising the limited opportunities for intervention where children are at serious risk of exploitation and harm. These methods have been found to be lawful in Australian legal proceedings involving child pornography and child grooming prosecutions.
In Europe, some more advanced techniques have been adopted, using avatars designed to mimic vulnerable children offering webcam sexual services, as in the "Sweetie Project" developed by the Dutch non-government organisation Terre des Hommes. This involves an automated chatbot posing as a 10-year-old Filipina girl, which has led to the arrest and conviction of some online offenders, including in Australia. While potentially useful evidence may thereby be obtained, the role of non-state actors and potentially even police in operating what arguably constitute automated surveillance devices in the collection of evidence remains largely untested in the courts, and poses challenges as to the legal limits of investigations. The Sweetie 2.0 Report completed in late 2016 analysed the laws of a number of jurisdictions, and found variation in the admissibility of evidence obtained using covert methods including this kind of chatbot. This presentation reviews these developments from a comparative law perspective.
Dr Gregor Urbas is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Canberra, where he teaches Criminal Law and Procedure, Cybercrime and Evidence Law. He has written extensively on criminal justice issues. He previously held positions at the Australian National University (ANU), the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) and the Law Council of Australia, and is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law and at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Dr Urbas is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Society and Technology (TILT) at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He wrote the Australian country analysis for the Sweetie 2.0 Report published by Terre des Hommes in October 2016.