Telegram, Paytm Face Criminal Case Over Child Sex Abuse Content


Hyderabad-based child rights activist Sunitha Krishnan has filed a police complaint against messaging app Telegram and digital payment apps PhonePe and Paytm for allegedly abetting in the sale of child sex abuse material, or CSAM, and building an ecosystem that allows sexual exploitation of children.

Ms Krishnan called on the popular digital platforms to take responsibility for the sale of CSAM via their networks, and demanded to know what protocols have been put in place to prevent distribution and sale of sexually explicit material involving children, including adult photography.

Ms Krishnan also hit out at the tech platforms for “mindfully (and) wilfully” aiding in the spread of CSAM and has demanded they “be aware where (and how) they are earning their money”.

Neither Paytm, PhonePe, nor Telegram, have responded, so far.

Telegram is one of the world’s most popular IM, or instant messaging, apps with 700 million users worldwide; India, the United States, and Russia are its biggest markets. The app offers extensive security features, including end-to-end encryption, private channels and self-destructing messages.

Ms Krishnan, the founder of Prajwala – a NGO that combats sex trafficking – said she had been following a casual lead when she was shocked at how easy it was to find CSAM online. She was also shocked by the large number of people illegally buying and selling videos of sex acts.

Many of these were performed, she suspects, by minors.

Ms Krishnan, awarded the Padma Shri in 2016, said she chose to file the complaint on Tuesday because it was Children’s Day, and because she wanted to red-flag dangers they face online.

The Investigation

She said she had been told of some Telegram accounts circulating CSAM. She downloaded the app at her office in Hyderabad and posed as a buyer. “There was no verification (to establish the name) and I could name myself under a pseudonym, which I chose as Vashisht,” she told Newsbust India.

Ms Krishnan explained the Telegram app has a search bar on the home page that lets you find groups/content/people with certain keywords – much like Google. “I came across a group called ‘Girls and Boys Chatting’. … on entering the group, which had 31,000 members, I found a stream of messages (selling) different categories of explicit material, including CSAM.”

“The encryption features sometimes don’t allow screenshots. The self-destruct feature of Telegram gives operators anonymity and safety from being tracked,” she said, “These private channels allow the admin to admit and remove members and not be visible in general search results.”

She established contact with three sellers for CSAM, and made payments via the Paytm or PhonePe app in each case. From one seller she found CSAM for Rs 50 and purchased more links after negotiating the amount from Rs 400 to Rs 150. “When I asked why there was a delay after payment, the seller said he had gone for tuitions. That is when I realised this is a minor I am dealing with.”

The CSAM delivered contained scenes of oral sex and intercourse with children, solo streaming of children between three and 12 years of age as well as adult pornography. “It also contained videos of (alleged) gang-rape (with) and molesters seeming to be from India.”

For Rs 100 (via PhonePe to the second), she was given access to six private channels containing explicit material. From a third, on payment of Rs 50 (also PhonePe), she got access to CSAM links, including adults participating in intercourse with children and self-streaming by underage girls.

Ms Krishnan said she came across groups with as many as 40,000 members; 528 were online at one time. The seller on one group offered access to his private channel through links upon payment.

On payment, the seller gave her access to a channel called ‘desi videos’ that contained adult pornography. After she complained, he gave her access to a channel named ‘Heart 4’. She paid Rs 80 more and got access to a ‘Heart2’ channel that contained more CSAM, including pictures of girls.

“No Warning From Telegram”

“Through this entire exercise, not a single pop-up appeared on Telegram, warning that dissemination of child sexually abusive material is a criminal offence and not reporting the same may attract POCSO Act,” she said, arguing Telegram is therefore facilitating sale and purchase of CSAM.

By not verifying identities, she added, Telegram is allowing those engaged in distribution to conceal their names. And Telegram’s end-to-end encryption allows transactions to purchase such material. Encryption settings allow prevention of screenshots, copying of links and collection of any evidence.

“PhonePe and Paytm have been instrumental in providing QR access to such sellers to distribute such material at extremely low costs with ease,” she added.

What Next?

Ms Krishnan has complained to Telangana DGP Anjani Kumar and intends to reach out to the Union Home Ministry.

“Circulation of such sexually exploitative content of children threatens the safety and security of all children and are grievous criminal offenses. Demand for CSAM will accelerate child trafficking for sexual exploitation. It is not enough to take action against the few players I randomly came across. Immediate and urgent action should be taken against Telegram, PhonePe and Paytm so as to prevent any more children being sexually exploited…” she stressed.

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