VPNs make it harder to fight online sexual abuse of young girls
End-to-end encryption and VPNs make it harder to fight online sexual abuse of young girls in the Philippines
Editorial note: This article contains depictions of child sexual abuse
Neil Jayson Servallos
The nightmare began four years ago, when Grace* was in high school. She remembered sitting quietly at her desk during lunch when visibly distraught friends approached her and broke the news.
“They told me that people were fussing over explicit photos and videos of me that were being spread inside and outside my school,” she told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in an interview.
She couldn’t breathe in wild panic. Dozens of boys who went to school with her had downloaded and shared these photos, which she had sent to her boyfriend, and videos he took of her when they were still together.
There was nothing else she could do at that moment but to weep.
The images and videos were taken when she was 16 and was dating a senior in her school. He was 18. He asked for her naked photos at first. She obliged, but didn’t want to include her face. He insisted.
When they started having sex, he persuaded her to film the act, too. She remembered agreeing in one instance, but another video she was shown came as a surprise. “I had no idea he took a video of me,” she said.
“I was still a minor back then, and I was heavily manipulated and groomed into sending those materials. That’s why I was in fear of asking for help [until later],” she told the PCIJ.
The Philippines has several laws that make her partner’s actions a crime, but it was Grace who suffered the consequences.
The change was drastic for the honor student, who enjoyed the trust of school officials. “When they got word about my scandal, they didn’t treat me the same anymore,” she said.
“[They seemed to have suddenly] assumed that I got my achievements by cheating and they even went as far as to not allow me to have a ‘testing folder’ (to cover her exam papers) in order to monitor me,” she said.
A few hundred cases
Grace was not alone in her situation. She’s among more than 200 underage Filipino girls who have sought the help of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG) in taking down their images from the internet.
The ACG has recorded at least 233 victims of “child pornography” by way of these schemes in the last decade. The year before the pandemic, 2019, saw the highest number of victims, 62. Last year, there were 37 victims as of October 2020.
The numbers only represent cases where the families pursued cases against the perpetrators.