The Internet is the greatest educational tool since the advent of books, but it is also a sinister playground for prowling predators searching for young prey.
It is particularly unnerving to think that these predators can enter a living room undeterred by locks or alarms, and unseen by parents or the family dog.
“The anonymity of the Internet plays a very significant role in enabling child molesters to cruise the Web for potential victims without much fear of being caught,” Karl Garrison, CTO and one of three owners of Intelligent Fusion, a consultant group for the federal government on data and information management, told TechNewsWorld.
Tough to Measure
The actual scope of the problem is difficult to measure since no one knows how many predators succeed and get away with it. However, the Cyber Tip Line — created in 1998 by an act of Congress — receives 503,000 reports annually.
“A year or two ago, the Cyber Tip Line got an average of 50 reports a week of online enticement of children for sexual acts. Now they get an average of 250 a week,” John Shehan, deputy director of the exploited child division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told TechNewsWorld.
The increase is due in part to social networking and chat rooms, which give predators additional opportunities, says Shehan.
The problem is often compounded by parental ignorance of the various technologies children use, and the tools available to stop cyber-attacks.
Tools for Parents
“There is a huge divide between parents’ understanding of the technologies involved versus their children’s,” adds Shehan.
To bridge the divide and arm parents, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children launched NetSmartz.org last February. The site has a list of frequently asked questions on the opening page and a tab for the library containing information ranging from explaining a browser to providing step-by-step instructions for monitoring teen cell phone calls. The site is easy to navigate, even for parents with little online experience.
Another feature on the Web site, “Ask An Expert” puts parents in touch with the same experts who work on the Cyber Tip Line.
“If parents don’t find an answer to their question on the site, they can email an expert who will answer within 24 hours. Afterwards, this information is added to the site, as are any new findings the Cyber Tip Line experts generate in the course of their regular duties, so that the Web site is constantly updated with the latest information,” Shehan notes.
Phone Service Coming
The center is launching a phone service next month for parents who want to speak directly to an expert, Shehan says. Qwest Communications is funding the phone service, but a phone number hasn’t been assigned yet. Once that is available, the center plans to launch a large campaign to get the number out to the public. The number will also be posted on the Web site.
Internet search companies and ISPs (Internet service providers) such as Google are also doing their part to stop predators from attacking children.
“Our approach to protecting children on the Internet has three primary elements: 1) powerful tools to empower families to control their activity online; 2) cooperation with law enforcement and industry partners to stop illegal content and activity online; and 3) educational efforts to increase awareness about online safety,” Victoria Grand, spokesperson for search giant Google, told TechNewsWorld.
Google developed SafeSearch, a filter that uses advanced technology to block pornographic and explicit content from search results, and a parental content administration feature which enables parents to view, edit or delete a child’s blog.
“If a parent wishes to delete a minor child’s blog, they can identify the child’s blog and provide proof (such as a birth certificate) that he or she is the parent/legal guardian of the minor child, and we will delete the blog for them,” explained Grand.
Such tools are hailed by parents and experts alike as the first line of defense against online predators.
“Parents should use URL filtering software (Web filtering) to control their children’s Web surfing. These solutions allow parents to block Web sites that are inappropriate for children,” Lawrence Orans, research director at Gartner, told TechNewsWorld. “Most of them work by assigning Web sites into categories, such as sports, pornography, gambling, shopping, etc. Parents can select which categories they want to block and which ones they wish to allow.”
“Some of these offerings also log instant message communications and chat room discussions,” he adds.
Detractors, however, fear that these applications may be turned against adults for malicious purposes.
“These programs must be installed on the home computer. They are used by parents, not by stalkers,” says Orans. But perhaps that means that such vulnerability depends on who has access to your computer onsite without your knowledge.
Privacy an Issue
Even so, critics say such programs constitute censorship and a serious threat to a child’s privacy.
“Like terrorism, child molestation conjures up such powerful emotions that many Americans will gladly sacrifice their civil liberties to thwart even a remote chance of an attack,” says Garrison. “However, I’m not sure the right question is children’s privacy versus thwarting predators but, rather, where the responsibility lies in ensuring our children are safe from predators.”
Countries outside the U.S. are struggling with many of the same issues and have taken innovative steps to thwart predators.
“In some places, like Korea, large game Web sites use national IDs to authenticate all users so they have some level of accountability,” says Garrison. “While very difficult to do in America — more for cultural reasons than technical reasons — a large trusted network would go a tremendously long way towards providing a safe environment for kids, teens, and adults to work and play.”
In any case, efforts to protect children online will continue to get more sophisticated for the single most basic of reasons.
“I have no problem with my kids chatting with other teenagers, but I hate the idea that they may be chatting with older guys posing as teenagers,” concludes Garrison.