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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement
Law enforcement capabilities in relation to child exploitation

LECLERC, Mr Benoit, Private capacity [by video link]


CHAIR: We'll kick off with our next witness. Everything you say is public; this is a public hearing, so be aware of that. If you want to give confidential evidence, you're quite welcome to. Just give me a heads up so we can turn off the broadcasting and keep that information confidential. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Leclerc: I am from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University.

CHAIR: I'm in home quarantine. You look like you're similarly working from home. Although you might have a bit better view than I do, from the looks of it!

Mr Leclerc: My apologies, I'm actually on leave.

CHAIR: Well, then we appreciate you spending your time on leave talking to us. We all have your submission and we've gone through it thoroughly and are very keen to ask questions, but by all means I'll give the floor over to you for about five minutes if there are any particular issues that you want to highlight to the committee.

Mr Leclerc: Yes, I'll do that. I've worked in the field of sexual offending for about 20 years now and I've also worked for about five years in a maximum-security psychiatric institution evaluating sexual deviance and risk assessment of sexual offenders. Briefly, that's my background.

In 2018, we got funded by the AIC to undertake research on child exploitation online. Very briefly, this is what we found. First, we were really impressed by how dedicated online investigators in Australia are in tackling this problem. We were also very impressed by their willingness to train and learn and to be provided more support to tackle this important problem. Lastly, we've just finished a study looking at not only the challenges of doing this work for online investigators but also the training and support that online investigators judge, from their perspective, to be necessary to help and support them in addressing this phenomenon.

There were three dimensions that came out of this last study—the most recent one. From the investigator's perspective, the first important dimension of addressing training and support was technology and social media platforms. The second one had to do with learning about sexual offenders—not only the different types of sexual offenders but also how they operate to commit their crimes. The last important dimension that came out of this study was the need to take more seriously the wellbeing of these online investigators in doing their work. This was by different means. One was, for instance, by training them in terms of emotional intelligence and other types of programs. These are the core dimensions that came out of that last study.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your work. I was going to ask this of our previous witness as well, but we just ran out of time. I think the academic work on this subject is very important. How are you finding getting access to the information that you need? This is from two perspectives. Firstly, how forthcoming is law enforcement in working with you, and how do we increase collaboration there? Secondly, how forthcoming are tech companies? They're obviously doing a lot of internal research on what's on their platforms. They're releasing some very broad stuff but not very much of it. If we were, as a parliament or as a committee, to look at ways to encourage them to release more of their internal data, how would that help with what you would be able to achieve?

Mr Leclerc : First, with police organisations, we found their cooperation to be excellent. We had the opportunity to interview investigators across Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the AFP and ACCCE, which is a new centre in Brisbane to counter exploitation of children. We didn't get to New South Wales and Victoria. Due to COVID, mainly, it was very difficult to get there. As to collaborations with police: like I said, we were very impressed with how dedicated they are—they take this phenomenon very seriously—but we also felt a bit disappointed by the fact that they don't seem to have that much support. They could have better support and better training programs to address this phenomenon. But all the investigators we interviewed are very keen to make a difference. They're just asking for more training and more support, essentially.

When it comes to technology providers, this is a bit more tricky. I haven't particularly worked with any technology providers on this issue yet, but what we know through the eyes of online investigators is that collaborating with them can be extremely difficult, especially when there's an ongoing case and, in trying to identify that particular case, they're trying to get an IP address. In trying to get to the bottom of that particular case, to solve it, often they will face a lot of reluctance from the technology provider to provide the details to them in order for them to identify offenders and make an arrest. Of course, technology providers have all sorts of privacy laws and legislation, and there are privacy issues and so on. Still, from the perspective of online investigators, collaboration with the technology providers is not great. But, in the end, it is essential. When you look at children and teenagers now, they all have a mobile device and are interacting on social media platforms. It's a huge phenomenon. They are getting their mobiles younger and younger and they're getting on TikTok and all these social media platforms. I don't have an answer to this, but we need to find a way, in partnership with police organisations, to better work with technology providers. I'm not too sure how forthcoming they are; like I said, I haven't worked with them specifically.

CHAIR: I appreciate your perspective. Can I switch topics a little bit? Your submission highlights the use of digital currencies by offenders. You will have to guide me a little bit on how deep your work has been in this space, but it is something that the committee's interested in. Are you seeing a correlation between the rise of cryptocurrencies and CAM offences? Are they using it because it is harder to track or more anonymised? What are some of the trends there?

Mr Leclerc : In the most recent years, since 2018 particularly, we have seen kind of a substantial rise in offenders using bitcoins, for instance, to get access to the material. It really complicates everything because, as you say, there is an anonymity feature that comes with this so it's more difficult to track.

CHAIR: Is it more difficult to track? I'm not a cryptocurrency person. I'll be honest with you; I don't own any, but I thought it kept a record along the chain of everybody who'd owned it from day dot. The deputy chair is shaking her head. She knows more about it than me, obviously.

Mr Leclerc : From my understanding, people can create fake accounts and fake names, a little bit like if you would put up a profile on Facebook or Instagram. You can create a face persona. Offenders are pretty good at that because, obviously, they don't want to be seen. They don't want to be discovered. So using virtual currencies, I can see, adds this extra layer of complexity for law enforcement to track them down. It can be tracked, but it's more difficult because it can use different fake accounts and so on. The way they would move the money around is not necessarily straightforward. It's not necessarily from account A to account B. It can be quite complex. It can come from one account and go to three different accounts. It gets really complex. Typically they would also transfer very small amounts of money so that it cannot come out as a warning sign—

CHAIR: It's not flagged.

Mr Leclerc : and be flagged from a financial institution perspective. Again, it's another layer of complexity for us to work around. All financial institutions and the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children are on this. They are working very hard on this to design projects, case studies or even typologies of transactional patterns using different cryptocurrencies that financial institutions can then use to identify what's going on when it comes to that movement of money.

It's another important problem because, I guess, 20 years ago we would say offenders would trade material to get other material. 'I have produced some material, and I'm going to trade that material to get some novel or fresh material; something that is new and is not on any social media platforms.' They get into that sort of thing. But now we can see quite an important increase of individuals—not necessarily sex offenders; just individuals—getting into these sorts of criminal markets just to make money. So it provides another incentive for what we call facilitators to facilitate—to get children to do stuff, to record that stuff, and to send it to offenders to get paid for it.

CHAIR: We've been asking other witnesses particularly about AI and the opportunity for machines to do a lot of this categorisation and sorting of CAM. Given your specific knowledge of law enforcement techniques and how it affects investigators, is the potential there for this AI to take a lot of pressure off them individually having to look at images or is it, in fact, creating more pressure on them because they have to look at some of the harder cases that the AI can't do? How are they interacting is my question?

Mr Leclerc : There is a preconceived idea that the problem for online investigators is viewing content as such. This is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem and the major part of the problem is investigators portraying offenders on the internet. They have to create relationships with them to be able to identify them down the road. Working with sex offenders for five or six years, in the long term, surely, it is going to affect some of these online investigators. It is very difficult to put up a list of warning signs when it comes to that because the effects or consequences generated by being in that field are very subtle. They can hit you like a wall at some point in your life when you're very stressed for different reasons. Let's say an investigator's going through a stressful period with his family, he is having problems at work or the workplace is very tense and you add a few layers of stressful events and stuff, then this sort of content is more likely to actually affect them.

Reducing the time that investigators would have to allocate to viewing this material is certainly a bonus. It's a good thing. Like I said, I don't see viewing content as being the major cause of negative consequences to online investigators. It is way more complex. It has to do with the workplace and it has to do with how much pressure these investigators put on themselves to do their work, how frustrated they get because they cannot achieve their work properly coupled with portraying an offender in order to create relationships with these offenders to arrest them down the road. It has become a massive bowl of stress for these people and, surely, down the line some of them will burn out and will have to be moved to another division or something like this.

The other problem with that is, since we don't have a massive workforce of very competent online investigators doing this work, we have to protect them—period. That is how I see it. We have to protect these people. How many do we have in Australia? I don't know—50, 60, 70? We have to protect these people so they can do their work properly, efficiently and also stay well and not be affected by this sort of child exploitation content.

CHAIR: There is no argument here. You are saying the training they can receive goes a long way to supporting them. Do they feel like they just can't keep up with the tech trends before them or do they feel like there just isn't enough training, that they don't get those opportunities often enough?

Mr Leclerc : It's what you're saying. They cannot keep track because they don't get training and enough support to be able to keep track, essentially. That's what it is. The technology needs to be updated. The amount of data that they would have to store when viewing content is just massive. Sometimes the technology is just not coping with the amount of data that they are going through but there are also social media platforms, all the new innovations in the technological world that the offenders will use to their advantage to what they're looking to do. Investigators need to be aware of this and they need more training, definitely.

CHAIR: I don't want you to name and shame because I'm sure a lot of them talk to you on an anonymous basis but are there some jurisdictions that are doing it better than others? Is it a problem across the board? Do we just need to lift the training standards for all, across the Australian jurisdictions?

Mr Leclerc : ACCCE is definitely on the top of the game. I would say ACCCE is doing great. That centre is doing everything it can to make a difference. That being said, what I heard from investigators is that there's no standardised training across Australia. Some of the investigators will receive the training and some others won't for some reason. I don't know why. Maybe because there's an investigator in the Northern Territory and they don't have the budget to pay for him to fly over to Queensland to receive the training. It could be as simple as that. To me, it's just not acceptable. All online investigators should be able to receive the same training. If you put them all on the same level in terms of training and we can bring all these investigators across Australia in the same room, for instance, for the same event, we would be boosting the capacity to know each other and better collaborate on different cases across states over Australia. It has many ramifications. Not all investigators, for various reasons, have access to the same quality of training.

CHAIR: That has been very helpful and it sounds like the ACCCE has a good role to play.

Dr ALY: I just want to pick up on the cryptocurrency piece, the bitcoin piece. Do you consider the threshold that AUSTRAC has, which is $10,000, a real inhibitor to AUSTRAC being able to collect evidence or track people who are accessing live feeds of child sexual abuse material?

Mr Leclerc : When you say $10,000 threshold, do you mean in order to flag if there's a problem or not, the threshold they are using?

Dr ALY: Yes.

Mr Leclerc : The Australian Institute of Criminology has done some research about that. What we know is some of these offenders will move money around but in very small amounts, $50 or $100, repeatedly. The repetitive nature of moving amounts of money from one account to another account should be flagged. I would imagine AUSTRAC knows that, is aware of that. I don't think $10,000 is—yes, unless they mean in a repetitive manner. But offenders are certainly paying small amounts of money to avoid being flagged.

Dr ALY: We've introduced laws around anti-money laundering and terrorist financing that assist AUSTRAC. Do you think there is a need for laws or some form of legislation introduced to assist AUSTRAC in being able to flag these kinds of small but voluminous transactions in this space?

Mr Leclerc : I think so—anything that can help to target this very dramatic phenomenon. Yes.

Dr ALY: In your submission you talk about the specific ways in which CEM offenders consume, distribute or produce material. They go through these stages: searching the open web, finding the existence of dark web, setting up access to dark web, entering the dark web, accessing CEM content, protecting their identity, engaging with other members, consuming and/or distributing. I want to get your opinion on this, in light of the evidence around early intervention that we heard from Professor Broadhurst prior to your appearance here. Is there an argument here that, given these steps—where there's a very real intention to access CEM, which involves actually going into the dark web, actually setting up access and actually protecting your identity in order to set up access to material—these actions in and of themselves are indicators of intent to commit a crime, and, therefore, the question of early intervention is problematic?

Mr Leclerc : Early intervention—can you be more specific?

Dr ALY: It is the idea of being able to intervene early to stop someone from committing an offence, given that the stages to committing an offence involve purposefully hiding your identity.

Mr Leclerc : Yes. So you're not talking about early intervention at the individual level. You're talking about—

Dr ALY: Professor Broadhurst talked about programs where they capture people who are viewing or accessing CEM and put them through, I suppose, rehabilitation or behavioural kinds of programs online.

Mr Leclerc : Yes. So you're asking me if that's effective?

Dr A LY: Yes. If there's so much intent involved in accessing the material, how effective does that render any kind of early intervention—because, in accessing the material itself, you have to hide your identity; you have to go to the dark web. You're not doing that for something innocent.

Mr Leclerc : Yes. That's the dark web, though. We have the clear web as well. Professor Broadhurst is probably talking in line with the clear web. You're absolutely right in the sense that offenders getting into the dark web obviously have this intention. That's what the dark web is designed for. That's what those communities on the dark web are designed for. They're designed for offenders to interact with each other. But, on the clear web, that's a very different question. I do think what Professor Broadhurst is doing is helpful because early intervention like this might prevent some offenders from escalating down the road. That's really important, because we can see that there's a transition for offenders to move from the clear web to the dark web at some point—if they get too deep into it, so to speak—and sometimes you have dark web offenders trying to recruit clear web offenders, if you know what I mean. Dark web offenders would be a bit more techno savvy, if you like. If they can identify some offenders on the clear web being involved in many criminal activities around that, they may actually identify that person and flag to that person the risk of committing these activities on the clear web and bring that person to complete those activities, or maintain those activities, on the dark web so that that person doesn't get flagged and arrested. So it's—

Dr ALY: That's kind of a form of recruiting, like terrorist recruiting, right?

Mr Leclerc : Yes. They can do that, definitely. The research that Professor Broadhurst is doing, essentially, is trying to break down the whole cycle, in a way, at the very early intervention point where offenders don't even have the possibility to escalate. I think it is important. How successful it can be is difficult to know because we're breaking down the chain very early. If we prevent Joe and Tom from accessing different material on the clear web, we'll never know if they would have gone and committed more criminal activities on the dark web. We can imagine that it would be a strong possibility, but we just don't know. So, yes, I do think it's important.

Dr ALY: The other thing that Professor Broadhurst mentioned was differences in the way in which different countries and international jurisdictions approach this. He mentioned that there are around 20 jurisdictions that don't consider viewing child exploitation material online as an offence. They only consider producing it as an offence. Can you make some comment on that, particularly in relation to the challenges that that poses in Australia for law enforcement.

Mr Leclerc : I think that as well. I have heard that there are some countries not really keen on collaborating—or they don't have the capacity to collaborate, put simply. I know Mexico, for instance, is one country where collaboration is extremely hard [inaudible] complete or to do with them. That touches on international collaborations from the Australian perspective here. Often Australian online investigators are asked to help and collaborate with other countries because the other countries simply don't have the capacity or the skill set to identify an offender, for instance. Even Canada will do that. It will reach out to Australia from time to time. However, there are two important dimensions to that. International collaboration is really important, but it is difficult to achieve, depending on the country, as you say, and depending on their laws. But also, it puts extra stress on online investigators in Australia because, as I said, how many investigators do we have—60, 70, 80? These guys don't have time to do their work. They're asking for more time to be able to do their work more efficiently. When they're asked to collaborate internationally they're very willing to do it, but they have to put a case on the side and then focus on another case. There's a real need for more human capacity in terms of online investigators to work in this field. There are thousands and thousands of offenders.

Dr ALY: On that, do you see a role for machine learning or artificial intelligence? There are certain challenges to the use of AI or machine learning, or whatever terminology you want to use. Do you see that in future there will still be a very heavy reliance on the human factor, on human investigations, as opposed to more reliance on artificial intelligence?

Mr Leclerc : It's a very good question. We always need the human factor—investigators. They know offenders best. In the line of their work they have to know who they're dealing with. A machine could not make judgement calls like this, I don't think. I guess AI and some of the technologies can help reduce the amount of work they have to go through or the amount of exposure to CEM and things like this, but decision-making remains a very important human factor, and I don't think you can replace that.

Dr ALY: We haven't heard a lot about the relationship between grooming and offending, whether it's contact offending or child exploitation material online. Have you done any work on that relationship, and can you make any comment there?

Mr L eclerc : Obviously, as the number of offenders online to view content increases dramatically, what comes with that is that some offenders may never have thought of having sexual contact with a child, but because they're getting exposed to so much content, because they're able to establish relationships with other offenders interested in having sexual activities with children, per se, some offenders can start online, so to speak, and then escalate in the real world and actually sexually abuse a child, maybe just to have the experience of having sexual contact with a child or maybe to produce, to record the material and then trade it for other material, maybe to gain status. I don't think there's any research providing strong empirical evidence on that particular point, because it's too early and it's difficult to collect data on this, but we can see, and it's quite logical in the sexual offending field: there's always some sort of escalation for a number of offenders. The problem with that is that some offenders may start easy but then they may move on to produce sexually offending material themselves.

Dr ALY: We've seen the psychology of online offenders tends to be that they do have more empathy for victims, but, if they are accessing excessive material or large volumes of material, do they then become desensitised and become less empathetic to individuals and that drives their behaviour offline to contact behaviour?

Mr Leclerc : It could be. By viewing so much material, they want more. They could start with very simple images and then escalate to more and more intrusive sexual activities, pictures and things like that. It's a possibility, definitely.

Dr ALY: Thank you, Professor. That's all from me.

CHAIR: Mr Conaghan has indicated that he doesn't have further questions. I'm going to ask a final couple just to round things off. Again, your submission talks about the AI, the hashing technology. It also talks about some of the limitations in relation to that—about how it might be limiting new material being found depending on the way that various companies employ it. They employ it at different times—and the rest of it. Can you talk to some of the trends in that regard?

Mr Leclerc : Not particularly, no, unfortunately. This was more in line with the expertise of my colleague Tom Holt.

CHAIR: Okay.

Mr Leclerc : I'm just being purely honest.

CHAIR: Quite alright. On that, I'm happy to leave it there. Are there any further questions? No. Thank you very much, Professor, for taking the time out of your leave to come and speak to us today. We really appreciate your time.

Mr Leclerc : No problem. It's a pleasure. Thank you.