WORLD: Why are so many cases of abuse revealed in North Rhine-Westphalia?
Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger: This is difficult to assess objectively from the outside. My guess, however, is that North Rhine-Westphalia is simply investing significantly more resources in illuminating the dark field. It can also mean that a covered case leads to networks with other perpetrators, but also groups of perpetrators, which can lead to more and more cases. From my point of view, the fact that crime complexes are being uncovered time and time again shows that this strategy works and is correct. Because it means that in any case you can save children and convict the perpetrators. Many cases probably also have a national or even international connection if the perpetrators or victims come from other federal states or other countries.
WORLD: So more police means more crimes detected?
Ruediger: That the focus and transfer of resources to crime areas does not lead to fewer reports, but to more facts being uncovered, is also described in criminology as the so-called “Lüchow-Dannenberg syndrome”. This means that if the police presence is increased, more crimes will be reported and eventually uncovered.
WORLD: Despite this, officials complain that they often lack the technical means to detect child abuse online. Where do you think the biggest dangers lurk?
Ruediger: First and foremost, one must distinguish here, because during “child abuse” in the digital space, a wide range of phenomena and perpetrators can be recorded. Cybergrooming – that is, the online-based initiation of sexualized violence against children – must be tackled differently from crime structures in the dark web or those that are primarily active in the social immediate field, but then also produce and share media. It seems that many acts of violence in the social immediate area lead to the production of media, which means that a digital component would also be present here.
WORLD: How to tackle these forms of abuse?
Ruediger: For example, cybergrooming can be counteracted by investigators posing as children on social media and online games and allowing themselves to be addressed digitally. In Darknet crime, on the other hand, attempts are being made to gain access to the criminal structures, which is why the legislature has given the security authorities the opportunity to make fictitious ‘abuse depictions’ themselves in order to fulfill, among other things, called ‘chastity tests’. This means that an undercover investigator himself produces alleged material to gain access to criminal groups.
WORLD: It’s a great set of tools. So what is still missing?
Ruediger: In my opinion, it is not necessarily only the investigative tools that are missing. Because here too you can achieve a lot with classic exploration work. But you need a lot of staff for that. One problem is rather the large mass and size of the field. In the digital space, we are talking not only about German suspects and victims, but about those who may be active from all over the world. At the same time, only one perpetrator can have terabytes of data and media, all of which can be relevant because there could always be new child victims on the media. In my opinion, it will no longer work here without AI-controlled analysis and evaluation mechanisms. One problem here, however, is that the police themselves must investigate any initial suspicion, otherwise the police officer may be prosecuted. This probably means that many media will eventually have to be viewed manually again.
WORLD: They plead for more preventive offers from 1st grade onwards.
Ruediger: In my opinion, there is not enough criminal policy discussion that in this year’s police crime statistics for the first time, the majority of all suspects who were conspicuous because of so-called “child pornographic content” via the Internet were themselves. children and teenagers. Overall, the significant increase in this type of offenses discussed in the media also seems to be attributable to this age group.
WORLD: How is it and what can be done about it?
Ruediger: Here are three primary ways in which this can happen. Minors deliberately search for and share such material in a chat group and get caught in the process. Or minors are even in a chat group, someone posts so relevant material in the group, the group members then have it on their smartphones unintentionally, which in turn can trigger the first suspicion of criminal offenses. Or a 14-year-old girl and her 13-year-old boyfriend engage in sexting, and the 13-year-old sends nude photos of herself. Then it may already be “child pornographic content” represent and the 14-year-old is punishable and will eventually be criminalized. Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons why I am skeptical of the EU’s planned chat control in its current form.
Ruediger: The real perpetrators that we as a society have to deal with will find other ways than communicating via messenger. Minors who may not even be aware of their criminal liability in this area will then be convicted even more often in cases of doubt. The minors are thus also confronted with the most serious charge, namely a crime. What significance this will have in the future is difficult to assess.
WORLD: If criminal law does not work, what then?
Ruediger: In my opinion, it requires education and awareness. Some children nowadays get a smartphone from 1st grade, with which they become part of a global digital communication space. Parents are not always able or willing to prepare children for the risks and challenges involved. There is only one institution where all children can be equally sensitive. This is the school. So when we practice media education – also in the sense of ‘What to do and what not to do’ – we also do active crime prevention. I think it’s a better way than prosecuting criminals, at least in the case of underage suspects. Therefore, my desire will be to make media literacy compulsory from 1st grade at all schools in Germany. Here I would like a common understanding of education and domestic policy, which then also includes the education and further training of either the teachers or the financial resources of appropriate media educators. But it is significant that media competence from primary and lower secondary school in 2022 is unfortunately still a desire in all schools in Germany.