Ontario Provincial Police arrest 64 suspects in child sexual exploitation investigation

Ontario Provincial Police say 64 suspects face a total of 348 charges in connection with a series of province-wide child sexual exploitation investigations.

The arrests were announced at a news conference in Scarborough on Wednesday morning as officers provided more details about a multi-jurisdictional investigation, dubbed Project Aquatics.

According to police, the case began in February 2024 and included 129 separate investigations across Ontario related to online sexual abuse material.

Detective-Sgt. Tim Brown told reporters Wednesday that 34 child victims were identified as part of the investigation. Police noted that as a result of Project Aquatics, another 30 children were “safeguarded,” which Brown defined as removing children from “a dangerous position” where they could “be offended.”

As part of the investigation, more than 600 digital devices were seized, police said.

“It ranged from teenagers to seniors to people who were arrested,” Brown said. “We find criminals throughout the province, in all walks of life and at all ages.”

Police allege that in one case, an individual set up a meeting with undercover investigators with the intention of meeting a child for sexual purposes. Another suspect, police said, was in possession of approximately 21 terabytes of data containing child sexual abuse material.

Toronto police told CP24 that 13 of the suspects were arrested in the city and now face a combined 69 criminal charges.

Most of the investigation, Brown said, was “reactive,” with investigators responding to complaints from different electronic service providers.

“We are working tirelessly to continually put pressure on those who seek to harm our children,” Brown told reporters. “These dangers are not limited to the dark corners of the Internet. Predators go where children go.”

Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, said Cybertip.ca, Canada’s hotline for reporting child sexual abuse and exploitation online, receives between 2,000 and 3,000 reports a month.

“Through our work, we have observed growing networks of adults with problematic sexual interests in children. “These online communities share sexual child abuse material and encourage each other to share tactics including how-to manuals,” she said.

“They normalize sexual abuse and child exploitation. Many within these communities become obsessed with certain victims, attempt to locate them, and even stalk them into adulthood. “Environments like the dark web fester and facilitate this behavior, and AI-generated images have tipped the scales in a problem that is already epidemic in size.”

Arnason said the number of suggestions involving AI-generated images has skyrocketed in Canada in recent years.

“There are two sides to that equation. There is one where criminals are looking for tools to take existing child sexual abuse material and create an AI-generated image. “You can only imagine the nightmare for those victims… now there are actually new abusive images of them,” she said.

“The second layer is the naked AI generators that young people hold in their hands and think it’s fun to produce an AI-generated image of a child at school. “That problem has exploded and we are dealing with schools across the country where they suddenly have this problem… We know this is incredibly traumatizing and detrimental to young people in particular.”

He noted that more government measures and regulations are needed to address the situation.

“We know that police across Canada cannot keep up. And hotlines around the world… are inundated with reports involving concerns about child sexual abuse material, as well as online sexual violence against young people,” she said.

“This issue requires commitment from a multitude of sectors; law enforcement, governments, online platforms, educators, parents and organizations like ours are critical in this fight. But more must be done.”

He added that technology companies must also do more to help protect children.

“We must approach protecting children online with the same vigor with which we have rightfully committed to protecting children offline. “Tech companies have wielded too much power, for profit, at the expense of children and long gone are the days when companies were expected to prioritize child safety through voluntary actions,” he stated.

“Prevention of uploads, expedited removal of child sexual abuse material, and appropriate moderation and training are equally critical elements in the fight against online exploitation and abuse of children.”

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