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RSA panel addresses Net threats to children

Panel discusses the depth of the problem and roots of sexual predation in online communities and ways to protect children.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
5 min read
RSA panel addresses Net threats to children SAN FRANCISCO--The amount of unwanted sexual material that teens and preteens are exposed to on the Internet has skyrocketed in recent years, yet only a fraction of those children are likely to report it to an adult.

This was among the concerns voiced Wednesday by partipicants in a panel discussion called "Pandora's Box: Youth and the Internet" at the RSA Conference 2007 here. The panel, which featured a journalist, pediatrician, federal law-enforcement official and a security expert, offered frightening statistics and invited the tech community to help find solutions to children's exposure to pornography and the prevalence of child pornography.

One in seven children between 10 and 17 have received an online sexual solicitation, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In what may be even more disheartening to parents, NCMEC says only 27 percent of kids who receive unwanted sexual material online are likely to report it to a parent or guardian. This can include receiving sexually explicit photos or videos, or an invitation to meet someone.

"There's going to be crime in any large community, offline and online. But you can put up lights in parks to prevent criminal activity."
--Chris Kelly,
chief security officer,

Biology is one reason children are susceptible to online predators, according to Dr. Sharon Cooper, CEO of Developmental and Forensic Pediatrics. Children and teenagers who are sexually mature are not yet mentally mature. Most people aren't completely mature until age 22, she said. "When kids are 13, 14, 16 years of age--making those decisions about whether I should or shouldn't meet someone online--their ability to detect true threats are not (fully) present," she said.

The type of material on the Internet and the threat of child sexual predators are increasingly dangerous, said Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the U.S. Department of Justice's child exploitation and obscenity section. The exploitation of children in the last eight to 10 years has seen an "amazingly scary escalation," Oosterbaan said. A decade ago, the content of child pornography his department worked to eradicate depicted children usually no younger than 13. "Now there is horrific, tortuous sexual abuse involving babies and toddlers," he said.

This escalation, he said, is partly due to the Internet's ability to bring communities together. Prior to the explosion of the Internet, pedophiles were relatively isolated. They've now found one other online, and the community's main commodity is child pornography, which if they can't find, they create themselves.

MySpace.com made national headlines last year, when it was discovered that the community contained hundreds of convicted sex offenders, including pedophiles. In October, Wired magazine Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen's investigation into the prevalence of sex offenders with MySpace accounts led police to a 38-year-old convicted sex offender who was using the social-networking site to solicit boys.

Poulsen investigated the problem by writing his own program that cross-referenced the Justice Department's National Sex Offender Database information with names and ZIP codes of MySpace members.

Even after the problem made national news, MySpace failed to directly address the problem, Poulsen told conference attendees. He said his takeaway from the experience was that MySpace wasn't doing enough to police its own site.

"They have enormous resources. They have people who do nothing all day but look for objectionable images on their site," Poulsen said. "Why (they couldn't) do the policing that I did--working part time with a relatively simple computer program--is hard to understand."

Panel moderator David Kirkpatrick took that opportunity to tell the audience that MySpace's chief security officer was originally scheduled to participate on the panel, but dropped out without explanation.

Reducing exposure to predators
Chris Kelly, chief security officer of social-networking site Facebook and a fill-in for his MySpace counterpart, discussed the steps his site has taken to reduce the risk of members' exposure to sexual predators.

First, it's not as easy to sign up on Facebook as on other social-networking sites, Kelly said. College students must have an institution-issued e-mail address, and high school students must have a school-issued e-mail or an invitation from someone.

But they've also employed technology to help tackle the problem. Facebook employs algorithms that detect possibly problematic situations, such as someone making too many friend requests to members younger than 18, repeated denials of friend requests and reports of inappropriate photos, Kelly said.

MySpace is currently championing a bipartisan bill that would require sex offenders to list their e-mail addresses and instant messaging handles in a federal registry. Social-networking and other Web sites could then check their user database against that information. Poulsen said MySpace's backing of the bill seemed to him like an "easy way out."

"Any solution you're looking for should target behavior today," not just past criminal behavior, Poulsen said.

Lawmakers are looking at other ways to stamp out sexual material online, especially child pornography. Kirkpatrick brought up a bill proposed Wednesday by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would require Internet service providers and some Web sites to alert federal authorities of any illegal images of real or "cartoon" minors online.

The Justice Department's Oosterbaan said he would support "anything that can help."

"The design here is to seek out, find, filter and destroy, with the idea that eventually you would dry up the imagery if it can be found," Oosterbaan said. But, he added, the bill calls for recognizing the DNA of a photograph, which can be altered with a simple pixel change. Though it's far from perfect, it's a start, he said.

Cooper noted that McCain's bill does not address the problem of live Webcam sessions between children and adult predators. "We need to block these transmissions," she said, inviting the audience of technology experts to help figure out ways to combat that.

MySpace escaped a complete thrashing during the session when Cooper said the site should applauded for offering Zephyr, software parents can install on a home computer to see the name, age and location of any MySpace profile accessed from that PC.

Though Facebook isn't offering Zephyr software, Kelly said the network is strongly supportive of education as the best way to protect young people in online communities.

"Education is part of the solution here, but it's not the be-all and end-all," he said. "There's going to be crime in any large community, offline and online. But you can put up lights in parks to prevent criminal activity."