Digital Kidnapping, Privacy & Child Online Protection

Above: Photo by @veroka/DepositPhotos.

Digital or virtual kidnapping is a term which enjoyed heightened interest around 2015/16 mainly in the US, in part due to the phenomenon being featured on the popular daytime reality show Dr Phil. 

The act itself describes taking shared photos of someone and creating a false narrative around those photos.  The affected photos may be of children, which have been shared either publicly or within a restricted group of ‘friends’ on social media by their parents.

Someone with legitimate access to the such photos, perhaps a member of the general public or a person within the parents’ social media ‘friends’ or ‘friends of friends’ listing, then takes the photos and misuses them. 

It is similar to, and can be considered a form of, ‘catfishing’, where alternate personas are created (by a perpetrator), using pictures of real people (victim), with the intent to foster relationships with other persons. 

In catfishing the perpetrator assumes the identity of the adult victim, by using their profile picture, on a social media platform. 

In the case of digital kidnapping however, the victim would be considered the affected children and perpetrator doesn’t assume their identity, they create an alternate reality, which can consist of fake captions, comments and stories accompanying the posting of the child’s pictures. 

The perpetrator shapes a fantasy in which they control the false narrative constructed with the appropriated children’s photos and it’s not unknown for the perpetrator to claim the child as their own.

“Parents excessively sharing details of their children’s lives on social media, ‘sharenting’,can lead to unintended consequences for children.

Shiva Bissessar

If this by itself is not alarming enough, some perpetrators build the narrative into an active role-playing scenario with the appropriated children’s photos in which they invite others to further develop the fake storyline and participate in their fantasy further via comments. 

Privacy Please

At its core, this issue is one of privacy and it underscores the need to be ever vigilant of the ‘digital footprint’ being left behind on social media; particularly as it relates to children. 

The phenomenon of parents excessively sharing details of their children’s lives on social media is now known as ‘sharenting’, which can lead to unintended consequences for children, who have no say in the matter and end up having an inordinate amount of the details of their lives being shared online. 

Indeed, the issue demands education, awareness and sensitization of the general public of the risks involved in sharing private and personal information on social media.

This role-playing development has flourished on the popular photo sharing app Instagram where photos designated by perpetrators for others to participate in such role-playing carry certain hashtags such as #AdoptionRP, #KidRP, #BabyRP and #OrphanRP.   

The Child Rescue Coalition, which advocates for greater privacy for kids via greater sensitivity by parents in sharing pictures of their kids, has created an Instagram account called @kidsforprivacy which highlights a listing of other hashtags that parents should avoid using when sharing pictures of their children as it may invite digital kidnapping and role-playing. 

Child Online Protection

Child Online Protection (COP) programmes have been developed by international agencies such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) with the intention of addressing various aspects of child online exploitation including more dangerous acts such as the creation of child sexual abuse material.  The ITU has produced and makes available COP guidelines for various stakeholder including;

  • Children

  • Parents, Guardians, and Educators

  • Industry

  • Policy Makers

The ITU website further lists a hosts of country profiles with respect to COP where Trinidad and Tobago has been deemed to satisfy certain requirements under the classification headers of; National Legislation (The Children’s Act, 2012), UN Convention and Institutional Support (eConnect and Learn Programme Policy & aspects of the National School Code of Conduct).

A 2017 report by the Commonwealth Internet Governance Forum, the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), titled “A Joint Report on Online Child Protection Combatting Child Sexual Abuse Material on the Internet” recognizes Trinidad and Tobago as satisfying four out of five ICMEC criteria.  The ICMEC criteria forms part of an assessment of legal frameworks globally to determine if national legislation:

  • Exists with specific regard to child pornography;

  • Defines child pornography;

  • Criminalizes computer-facilitated offences involving child pornography;

  • Criminalizes the knowing possession of child pornography regardless of the intent to distribute; and

  • Requires Internet Service Providers to report suspected child pornography to law enforcement or another designated agency.

The report, while explicitly focused on child sexual abuse content, notes that Commonwealth members may deem it necessary to examine a more expansive set of online child safety issues including ensuring that: “children and young people themselves are aware of a range of hazards which exist on the Internet e.g. exposure to age inappropriate but legal content, exposure to unscrupulous commercial practices, the risk of Internet addiction and, hugely important for young people of school age and others, the risks associated with various forms of online bullying”. 

These other aspects must therefore form part of any COP programme.

Tackling the issue of online or cyber-bullying, something with high potential to impact children in a significantly negative way, remains a very contentious point in the development of cybercrime legislation in Trinidad & Tobago, as discerned from the Joint Select Committee Report on Cybercrime Bill, 2017. 

Unfortunately, much of the focus has been how publishers and broadcasters are impacted by the cyberbullying provisions while advocacy for children protection under such provisions hasn’t received similar attention.

The ITU also presents a host of links to resources where further information and guidance on COP can be found. 

To take full advantage of this and other resources, however, would require a national coordinated effort towards development of appropriate education, awareness and sensitization programmes and subsequent meaningful interaction with key stakeholders across various Ministries and agencies including the Children’s’ Authority, the education system and Ministry of National Security. 

Recommendations & Conclusion

Some of the general rules to follow in increasing privacy on social media includes:

  • Be cautious in what you share and monitor what your family members and friends are posting as well as how frequently.

  • Know your privacy settings and limit access to pictures of your children, this could include making sure profile pictures, cover photos, etc. aren’t publicly viewable.

  • Turn off geotagging on photos and make the relevant setting to remove EXIF information, which includes GPS data, from your smartphones and digital cameras to protect your location information. 

  • Consent is integral and sharing of photos and tagging should not be practiced without getting permission from others who are being included

  • Everything you post online can potentially remain there permanently, hence be selective in what is shared; things we laugh at today can be deemed a complete lack of judgement later.

Attention to digital kidnapping and privacy concerns underscores the need to respond to the more pervasive threat of exploitation of children on the Internet via implementation of COP programmes. 

The impetus in Trinidad & Tobago towards this goal should be high, as earlier in January 2019, a public hearing of Parliament’s Human Rights Equality and Diversity Joint Select Committee heard testimony highlighting that of 69 child pornography reports being received by MoE over the past five years where “67 per cent of the 69 cases were girls involved in child pornography.”

An integral part of the response at the national level to such a threat would be the development of cyber-awareness programmes for children and key stakeholders including students, parents, teachers and caregivers to highlight the pitfalls of social media and need for individuals to protect their privacy, and indeed protect children, from all forms of exploitation on the internet.

Commitment to COP requires that timebound objectives be established and observed.  Additionally, the issues of leadership and funding are also paramount towards achievement of expected COP outcomes. A coordinated approach across key Ministries, departments and agencies and other key public and private stakeholders is required.

Education, Awareness & Sensitization Is Key

Industry participants would have a role to play in assisting COP initiatives at various stages including policy development and sensitization campaigns with the general public.  Telecommunications providers, Internet Service provider (ISPs), Publishers and Broadcasters and their regulatory body need to be onboard with such initiatives providing leadership, guidance and funding.

Participation of experts and civic groups would also be necessary towards the production of meaning educations, awareness and sensitization programmes to promote COP.

CybersafeTT has worked with the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad & Tobago (TATT), and on its own, in providing education, awareness and sensitization interventions to school children in relation to COP; however, an updated and more formal and permanent effort towards COP is required.

Kids for Privacy Awareness Graphic

Relevant resources

Shiva Bissessar

Shiva Bissessar, Managing Director of Pinaka Consulting, working with an international agency, has developed a programme designed to canvass all secondary schools in Trinidad and Tobago as part of an intensive cyber- awareness and sensitization campaign. This proposal has not been executed due to lack of commitment to funding.