New Delhi: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Wednesday arrested seven people as part of a crackdown on a suspected international online child sexual exploitation network. The arrests followed raids in 77 locations across 13 states and one Union territory, with two others put behind bars Thursday.
The raids, the CBI said, were conducted after the discovery of an online child sexual abuse operation that allegedly involves more than 50 syndicates and 5,000 individuals spread across 100 countries.
According to sources in the CBI, the nexus was engaged in the online distribution of child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) for monetary benefits.
The illegal operation, the sources said, came to the CBI’s notice about three months ago. Following “intensive intel collection and surveillance in the remotest areas of the country over a period of three months”, the agency conducted raids at multiple locations on 14 November, a source told ThePrint.
The raids in India were conducted in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh, besides Delhi.
The CBI said in a statement that it had seized numerous laptops, mobile phones, and other electronic gadgets during the raids. The agency has lodged 23 cases against 83 people. While nine people have been arrested so far, the CBI source quoted above said more arrests are likely.
Unravelling the network
The initial inputs for the investigation, sources said, were provided by the Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Prevention/Investigation (OCSAE) unit of the CBI, which was set up in 2019 to track and monitor posting, circulation and downloads of CSEM on the internet.
The sources added that investigators followed a money trail of e-wallets and bank accounts to nab the accused. The actual amount involved in the racket is still under investigation, a second source said, but confirmed that foreign funds were also tracked.
“The accused were disseminating the child abuse content online through links, videos, pictures, texts, posts, and hosting such things on social media platforms,” the source said.
ThePrint accessed one of the 23 FIRs, lodged against a group of individuals in Jhansi, which made the same allegation.
The FIR said “individuals based in different parts of India and foreign countries” were “circulating, storing and viewing child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) [using] social media groups/platforms and third-party storage/hosting platforms”.
International ‘nexus’ from Pakistan to the US
The suspected child sexual abuse network, the sources said, extends well beyond the borders of India and involves people from Pakistan, the US, Canada, the UK, Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Yemen, Malaysia, and Indonesia, among other countries.
“This is part of a larger nexus,” the second CBI source said. “Thirty-six of the phone numbers identified have been detected in Pakistan, 35 in Canada and the UK, 31 in Bangladesh, 30 in Sri Lanka, 28 in Nigeria, 27 in Azerbaijan, 24 in Yemen, and 22 in Malaysia,” the source added.
The CBI is now coordinating with foreign law enforcement agencies to get to the root of the entire network. The agency is also taking up the matter with social media websites and hosting platforms, the sources said.
The second CBI source quoted above said the market for online child sexual exploitation material in India appears to be sizable.
“According to Interpol, an estimated 2.4 million searches were made for online child abuse content in India between 2017 and 2020, and 80 per cent of the children were girls under the age of 14. The content and consumers of child pornography are growing at a fast rate. One finding shows that search engines get over 1,16,000 queries related to child pornography every day,” the source said.
Last year, the OCSAE had arrested a junior engineer from Banda in Uttar Pradesh for allegedly sexually abusing around 50 children over a decade and uploading photos and videos of the abuse on the dark web.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)