Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Are Predators Lurking on Your Child's Social Networking Sites?

Are Predators Lurking on Your Child's Social Networking Sites?
Etienne A. Gibbs, MSW, Internet Safety Advocate and Educator

MySpace, Facebook, BlackPlanet, and other social networking sites are thriving communities where anyone can spend countless hours meeting new people, making
, chatting, and exchanging pictures. Young people especially flock to these sites to build their own 15 minutes of fame. But, sadly, these sites also have become hangouts for child predators, child pornographers, and other cybercriminals.

To stay one step ahead of authorities, these cybercriminals use tricks to conceal their identities online. One of the most common is lying about their ages, claiming to be younger than they are. And to hide their IP addresses and locations, predators and other cybercriminals often piggyback on Wi-Fi connections or use proxy servers. They use decentralized peer-to-peer networks to prevent material from being tracked to a specific server. They also use encryption to allow them to keep online chats private from those policing the Web. When law enforcement, ISPs, and others take down the websites of these pedophiles, predators, and cybercriminals, it's not long before they're back up, hosted by a different service.

Skillful with their cell phones, instant messaging accounts, and with access to personal computers at home and school, young people are easy targets for sexual predators. Too many of them are ready and willing to share personal information online without a thought to how it might be misused by others. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that one in five kids online has been solicited or enticed. Reports of child pornography on the center's CyberTipline have increased six of the last seven years.

Business and technology professionals may think of online child safety as a family issue, but it's a workplace issue, too. Social networks aren't just a teen phenomenon. A recent survey by Web filtering company, Websense, found that 8% of respondents visit social networking sites while at work. Companies can use Web filters to limit access to the sites, though Websense says its customers don't seem overly concerned. Whiling away company time on social networks is a productivity issue; luring children for sex is a criminal one.

There's little evidence that sexual predators are trolling from workplace personal computers, but it's been known to happen. In 2003, a Cincinnati-area police chief admitted to soliciting sex from someone he thought was a 15-year-old, using his work computer. And a deputy press secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, arrested in March for attempting to seduce a child, had his workplace computer seized as part of the investigation and gave the number to his government-issued cell phone to a police office posing as a 14-year-old girl.

Child porn stored on company computers and servers has been a bigger problem. Filtering and blocking can help keep the images off networks, though it's not failsafe. Keyword and URL-based filters have spotty coverage. Other software scans images for limbs and skin tones and blocks pictures it identifies as porn, but skin often takes up too little of the photographs, and innocuous material can be inadvertently blocked.

The Internet Crimes Against Children program last year investigated 2,329 cases of enticement and of predators traveling to meet minors, and 252,000 cases of child pornography. Yet those numbers provide just a glimpse of the activity, since many local police forces are too small to investigate child porn. "It's absolutely overwhelming," says Brad Russ, director of The Internet Crimes Against Children's training and technical assistance program, which trains 1,000 officers each year. "The scope and the scale of the problem far exceed our capacity." Intensifying the epidemic is that more than half the world has no laws dealing with child pornography.

Vigilante groups are fighting back. In January, NBC's Dateline featured a report about one such group,, which set up a sting that resulted in 51 men being busted in three nights. The group hasn't seen one acquittal from those it's helped bring to justice, and nearly all of its work is done with law enforcement. Yet some in law enforcement are wary of such efforts. "We certainly take any information that anyone has regarding an offender," says Randy Newcomb, an investigator with the New York State Police in Canandaigua, N.Y. However, vigilantes expose themselves to liability for entrapment or possession of child porn and might not properly maintain digital evidence, Newcomb says.

Putting filtering and monitoring software on kids' computers provides some protection. SearchHelp's Sentry line, for example, blocks Web sites based on keywords and creates a log of visited sites. It also lets parents and other guardians monitor a child's activity from other computers. Parents can be notified of violations via email or cell phone. Sentry also monitors IM conversations, using expertise culled from law enforcement to flag phrases commonly used by predators.

Any Internet Technology professional knows of the limitations of such tools. The filters don't work perfectly, and even if kids post and browse safely, social networking sites present a new set of problems. Profiles on the sites often link to other online information sources, providing the type of data a fixated predator might use to locate a child, such as a school name, says Michelle Collins, a unit director at The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Investigator Newcomb spoke to an auditorium of elementary schoolers in western New York. When he asked kids in the audience how many of them had more than 200 friends on their online buddy list, a bunch of hands shot up.

Out of those, he asked how many have only friends on that list they can put a face to, and half of the hands remained raised.

Finally, he asked if any of the kids had ever gone and met someone they'd got to know online, and a few hands were raised. "That's just totally frightening to me," Newcomb says. "The superintendent looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head."

It may take a village to raise a child, but in a world of online social networking, decentralized networks and servers, and increasingly tech-savvy child predators, it's going to take a united effort among government, industry, and families to keep them safe. To protect your child, you need an Internet security team of experts making sure that you, your family, and your business computer are always safe and secure.

The best protection you can have in today's rapidly changing world of cyber-attacks is to have expert support for all your Internet security needs that will provide technical support without any hassles and without charging you extra fees. It will become even more critical than it is today as time goes on. You need to find your own personal team of experts to rely on. If you ever have a security problem, you will want to have a trusted expert you can call for professional help, without any hassles and extra costs!

Remember: When you say No to hackers and spyware, everyone wins! When you don't, we all lose.

© MMVIII, Etienne A. Gibbs, MSW
Your Internet Safety Advocate and Educator

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