Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Hunting the Cyber Predator

The scene: a ballroom in a fancy hotel in Denver, Colorado. The room is crammed with teenagers of both sexes, as well as a preponderance of young men in their twenties, from all across the U. S. and from many foreign countries as well. Each person wears a mask and a costume that completely disguises identity. What brought them here? In malls and shopping centers all across the nation, attractive advertisements enticed these young people to a free party. To respond to an ad, you entered a small office where you encountered a man wearing a blindfold. The man asked you a few not particularly personal questions about yourself, and handed you a free round-trip airline ticket to Colorado. Some of the younger teens told their parents what they were up to, but many of them neglected that little detail.

The episode above is fiction. It sounds like the beginning of a bad suspense novel, bad because of its unbelievability. Any outfit making such an offer would risk kidnaping charges or worse. But if you substitute the Internet for the free airline tickets, and the elementary requirements for entering such social-networking sites as MySpace.com for the interview with the blindfolded man, you have a fairly good approximation of what goes on online every day, twenty-four hours a day. And while the vast majority of social encounters on these sites do no harm, there are enough folks out there trying to abuse the system for purposes of sex or child pornography to keep the Texas attorney general's Cyber Crimes Unit busy. That office recently marked the third anniversary of its founding in 2003 with the arrest of its 80th alleged cyber predator.

Although many social networking websites have minimum age limits and warnings against putting too much personal or identifying information online, these restrictions are easy to evade, for either innocent or sinister reasons. For example, MySpace.com has a section on "Safety Tips" in which they warn users to "avoid meeting people in person whom you do not fully know." What "fully" knowing somebody means is left up to the user to decide. You are warned that "if you lie about your age, MySpace will delete your profile," which fails to explain how MySpace is going to find out how old you really are in the first place. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has called for social-networking websites to require a credit card number from users, which would at least ensure the involvement of someone over seventeen years of age. But so far the sites have resisted this proposal.

None of the good things the Internet has brought us—and none of the bad things, either—could have come about without the vision and labor of many thousands of software engineers and others who came up with the idea and manage to keep the whole unruly thing going. It is a truism of the history of technology that people will use—and abuse—new technologies in ways that the designers never thought of. As it has become easier for more people without technical backgrounds to present more personal online information about themselves, including photos and up-to-date identifying data, the dangers of letting the whole world see your virtual persona online have increased as well. No responsible parent would let their ten-year-old daughter wander around in an unfamiliar city. But there are some children that age who can run cybercircles around older adults and do things that we literally can't imagine, because we older folks are unfamiliar with that world.

Where does the responsibility for protecting children from Internet predators lie? For the most part, not with the children themselves. Both in law and in fact, even children who can write C++ code at the age of ten are still emotionally immature, and can't be expected to follow all the "safety tips" a well-meaning site manager posts. Parents are the next logical choice. But parents find it hard to be in the room watching every last second that Jack or Jill spends online, even if they wanted to. That leaves the operators of the social-networking sites themselves on the front lines.

No doubt there are some security measures already in operation that are invisible to the user. But if the attorney general of only one state has been able to catch eighty suspected cyber predators in three years from a dead start, you know there are lots more out there to be caught. Clearly, whatever measures are already in place at the sites are not foolproof, nor should they be. But it seems that the looseness and open-ended nature of these sites, while encouraging people to meet new friends, leaves children wide-open to the danger of becoming a victim to a sufficiently ingenious and dedicated predator.

Some feel that since software got us into this problem, software can help us solve it too. Increasingly sophisticated automatic systems for detecting pornographic content (both text and visual forms) are being used here and there. But that is only part of the problem. To make sure no one under age uses these systems, something like the credit-card-number idea needs to be implemented. People with past criminal records having to do with child molestation should be positively identified and blocked from such sites. And while it is a challenge to come up with a system that would sense when a potential predator is "pumping" a victim for identifying information, equally sophisticated systems now routinely develop elaborate and finely graduated profiles of our tastes in books, food, entertainment, and other online purchases. If software engineers devoted a fraction of the energy to the problem of cyber predators that they have expended on figuring out exactly what we want to buy, maybe the Cyber Crimes Unit in Austin will eventually have to look for other kinds of criminals to catch. For example, there's that Nigerian princess who hasn't got back to me lately . . . .

Sources: The Texas Attorney General's announcement "Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s Cyber Crimes Unit Marks 3-year Anniversary With 80th Arrest" is at http://www.oag.state.tx.us/oagNews/release.php?id=1573. MySpace.com's list of safety tips is at http://collect.myspace.com/misc/safetytips.html?z=1.

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