Wearing pajamas and a pair of plastic slip-on shoes, the 12-year-old girl crouched in a doorway and texted a friend to say she’d run away. It was raining, and the mud stuck to her flip-flops and splattered her legs. She received an address in reply. There was a foreigner who lived in the condo block who would give her enough money for the next month, her friend’s message said. “Do what he tells you, and it will be OK.”
Within an hour, the girl — we’ll call her A. to protect her identity — was sitting naked in a man’s bedroom as he clicked the shutter on a large, expensive-looking camera. Wrinkled, with white hair and a towel tied around his waist, he told A. that he came from the United States. He was happy to help her, he said. She should feel free to stop by any time. When he was finished taking the photos, he pulled 2,000 Philippine pesos ($40) from his wallet, and A. fled for the second time that day.
A. doesn’t know where those photos ended up, but she worries that they’re somewhere on the internet. It seems likely. For years, girls and boys growing up in the Philippines have faced the highest risk of so-called ‘cyber trafficking’ in the world. In 2018, the Philippine Department of Justice revealed that it receives over 3,000 reports of children being exploited over the internet every month — leading UNICEF to dub the country the global ‘epicenter’ of cyber trafficking the same year. Much of it takes place over social media. The Philippines is the second-largest Facebook market in South East Asia. It’s one of the top four fastest-growing regions of Facebook users in the world.
Despite efforts by local and international law enforcement, investigators admit that it’s difficult to keep up with those behind the abuse. Sometimes the predators are foreigners already living in the Philippines, creating child abuse materials to distribute across the dark web. Others are overseas, trawling Facebook for young Filipinos who they can groom to perform sex acts on camera. In many reports, researchers describe parents and family members who are also involved: filming children as young as two years old in so-called cybersex dens, and broadcasting the footage across encrypted channels in a desperate bid to earn a few dollars at a time.
Now, as the outbreak of coronavirus places the country’s cities and provinces on lockdown, the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development says that the number of children at risk from online abuse is projected to grow. The link between poverty and exploitation is well-established. How the Philippine government, U.S. tech companies, and international human rights organizations choose to react to the threat in coming days could impact the lives of thousands
Coronavirus in the Philippines
It’s been nearly two months since the first person tested positive for Covid-19 in the Philippines, on January 30. As of Friday, March 27, there had been 808 confirmed cases across the country and 54 deaths, including nine doctors. On March 16, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a month-long “community quarantine” across Luzon: the largest island in the Philippines and home to 57 million people. A Human Rights Watch report released ten days later revealed that hundreds of people had already been arrested for violating curfew conditions; some locked in dog cages as punishment.
The government is also facing criticism for taking too long to impose the necessary measures to limit the spread of the virus, while simultaneously delaying the necessary social welfare and support for those suffering without a daily income. On March 24, Congress approved a bill declaring a national emergency and authorizing the President to launch a multi-billion peso aid package that will provide between 5,000 and 8,000 pesos ($100–160) per month for low-income families, but there is still no news on how or when they will be able to receive the grants.
As the situation worsens, officials within the Philippine Department of Justice say they’re aware of the heightened threat facing children across the country during the pandemic, but don’t know how to respond. “Closed borders and lockdowns don’t limit perpetrators of online abuse, because everyone has the internet inside their homes,” said Yvette Coronel, Deputy Executive Director for the Department of Justice’s Inter-Agency Coalition Against Trafficking. “It maybe does make finding out about the abuse more difficult. Honestly, we’re still figuring it out.”
Even under usual circumstances, cyber trafficking moves quickly, hastened by high-speed internet and the urgency that invariably accompanies hunger and economic need. In the Philippines, where the population spends more time on the internet than anywhere else in the world and one in five people survive on less than $1.90 a day, technology and poverty have already collided with devastating results. Meanwhile, the lockdown is slowing investigations into trafficking offenses. “The courts and prosecutorial offices are all closed,” said Coronel. “It is certainly going to be a challenge.” When reports of exploitation do come through, law enforcement will continue to act, she confirmed.
“Victims need not leave the country to be the victims of cross-border sexual exploitation,” said Senator Leila de Lima, the former Justice Secretary for the Philippines, wrote in an email interview conducted late last year, before the coronavirus outbreak. Currently imprisoned following her criticism of President Duterte’s violent ‘war on drugs’, De Lima had previously identified online child abuse as the leading cybercrime in the country. “Social welfare programs should be employed to help make women and children less vulnerable to being exploited,” she wrote in October from a detention facility in Manila. “A huge part of their vulnerability comes from economic necessity and lack of strong support for single mothers or poor families.”
In Pampanga, a largely tourism-dependent region two hours’ drive north of Manila, many single mothers have already revealed that they’re struggling to cope without a daily wage. “I’m not going to die of coronavirus,” said M., a 38-year-old mother of four who usually makes a living by cleaning people’s houses and running errands around town. “I’m going to die from having nothing to eat.” Five days after President Duterte imposed a lockdown across the Central Luzon province, M., left her house to ask friends to lend her some food. She was promptly arrested by police and detained overnight in the local jail. Her children, aged four, six, nine and ten, were unaccompanied until she was released at 8:00 A.M. the next day.
Women across the region share similar stories. Abigail Ocampo, 23, hasn’t been able to feed her three children since the lockdown was imposed. “No work, no income, no food, no milk,” she said. “Maybe in other places the government helps, but for [people] like me, no. I’m really not OK right now.
Facebook’s role in online abuse
A. has also been finding life harder than normal during the pandemic. Two years after she first ran away from her violent family, the 14-year-old is still homeless. She usually sleeps on her friends’ floors: carrying a small green holdall from house to house and curling up on whatever surface she can find — until tensions rise and she’s invariably kicked out. Less than one week into the lockdown, she updated her status to say she was hungry: signaling her vulnerability to all 4,920 of her Facebook friends.
It’s children like her who researchers say are some of the most vulnerable to abuse over the social media platform. Until recently, A. was still Facebook friends with the American who first asked her for naked photos. She said she receives tens of similar messages from other adult men every week, asking her to chat and send pictures, too. She ignores them, she said. Most of the time.
Until last Monday, there were people watching out for her. More than 15,000 of Facebook’s employees were spending hours every day trawling the site for content that could break the social media platform’s rules and place users at risk. Tasked with manually reviewing and deleting child abuse materials, graphic violence (including torture and beheadings), fake news and hate speech, their work was intense and often traumatic. It was also crucial to users’ safety. Now, in order to protect their employees’ health during the pandemic, every single one of the site’s human moderators is on paid leave. The work is too sensitive to be done from home. Instead, Facebook will be relying on artificial intelligence to moderate the platform in their place — even though critics say Facebook’s technology is still a long way from mimicking the humans it’s hoped to replace.
When The Fuller Project asked how these measures could impact children in the Philippines, a Facebook representative said that the platform has a zero-tolerance policy for online sexual exploitation. “For years we’ve been tackling this issue with the most advanced technologies, industry collaboration and partnerships with safety experts,” a spokesperson said in a statement issued over email. “We invest billions of dollars and deploy sophisticated technology across all of our platforms to proactively find and remove most of this content before someone reports it, oftentimes at the point it is being uploaded.”
For as long as President Duterte delays rolling out emergency support to low income families, and anti-trafficking organizations hold off on developing potential solutions, the situation in the Philippines looks set to stretch Silicon Valley’s billion-dollar technology to its limit.
“If the demand is there,” De Lima said, “there will always be those who will seek to profit from human lives, human misery and innocence.”
Cyber trafficking in the Philippines had already become “a major problem” that President Duterte’s administration was finding difficult to prevent, she said — long before the lockdown left single mothers without an income, children on the streets and social media platforms reliant on A-I to keep predators in check.