Terre des Hommes creates virtual 10-year-old girl to combat webcam child sex tourism

8 Nov 2013

Image via Terre des Hommes Netherlands

Sweetie, a 10-year-old Filipino girl, has helped identify 1,000 predators using webcams and public chat rooms to exploit children online. She’s now the face of a campaign to stop webcam child sex tourism – but she’s not real.

Sweetie is, in fact, a sophisticated virtual model created to entrap paedophiles online. While these predators believe they are communicating with a young girl in Manila, her every movement is controlled by a team of researchers operating out of a warehouse in the Netherlands.

This team was assembled by Terre des Hommes Netherlands, one of several independent bodies operating under the Terre des Hommes name and campaigning for children’s rights worldwide.

During a 10-week operation, researchers posed as Sweetie in online chat rooms and were approached by more than 20,000 predators from around the world. More than 1,000 of these adults from more than 65 countries offered the ‘girl’ money to perform sexual acts on her webcam.

As these adults interacted with Sweetie, researchers behind the scenes gathered information to uncover their identities. The investigation was conducted exclusively through public chat rooms and identifying information was collected using publicly available records and data provided by the adults themselves, claims Terre des Hommes Netherlands.


The identity of these 1,000 predators will not be made public but the collected information and video footage has been submitted to Interpol. However, according to a professor of criminology from Birmingham City University speaking to the UK’s Metro News, this evidence would not hold up in court.

“With all kinds of vigilante activity, you can have a very quick success in drawing attention to a problem area, but that vigilante attention doesn’t bring with it in its wake arrests and charges and convictions,” said Prof David Wilson.

Sweetie control room - Terre des Hommes Netherlands

The control room of researchers operating Sweetie

Online petition

That is where Terre des Hommes Netherlands’ petition to pressure law enforcement authorities to take a pro-active approach like theirs to capture these criminals comes into play. Launched on Monday in partnership with Avaaz, it has already received close to 200,000 signatures.

“It is not a problem of existing laws. The United Nations has established laws that make this child abuse nearly universally illegal,” said Hans Guyt, director of campaigns at Terre des Hommes Netherlands. “The biggest problem is that the police don’t take action until child victims file reports, but children almost never report these crimes. These children are usually forced to do this by adults or by extreme poverty. Sometimes they have to testify against their own family, which is almost an impossible thing to do for a child.”

The making of Sweetie - Terre des Hommes Netherlands

The making of Sweetie

Terre des Hommes Netherlands predicts that the number of children exploited through webcam child sex tourism will rise as internet access becomes more widespread in developing countries. The organisation claims there are 750,000 child predators connected to the internet at any given moment and, though tens of thousands have fallen victim to this form of child exploitation in the Philippines alone, only six perpetrators of webcam child sex tourism have been convicted worldwide.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.