Social networks scan for sexual predators, with uneven results
A man in his early thirties was chatting about
sex with a 13-year-old South Florida girl and planned to meet her after
middle-school classes the next day.
extensive but little-discussed technology for scanning postings and
chats for criminal activity automatically flagged the conversation for
employees, who read it and quickly called police.
took control of the teenager's computer and arrested the man the next
day, said Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan of the Florida
Department of Law Enforcement. The alleged predator has pleaded not
guilty to multiple charges of soliciting a minor.
manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to
respond as soon as possible," said Duncan, one of a half-dozen law
enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering
Facebook is among the
many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and
human monitoring to thwart sex predators. Such efforts generally start
with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of
personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted
pedophiles' online chats to teach the software what to seek out.
even though defensive techniques are now available and effective they
can be expensive. They can also alienate some of a site's target
audience -- especially teen users who expect more freedom of expression.
While many top sites catering to young children are quite vigilant, the
same can't be said for the burgeoning array of online options for the
13- to 18-year-old set.
companies out there that are doing a very good job, working within the
confines of what they have available," said Brooke Donahue, a
supervisory special agent with an FBI team devoted to Internet predators
and child pornography. "There are companies out there that are more
concerned about profitability."
The smartphone factor
Two recent incidents are raising new questions about companies' willingness to invest in safety.
month the maker of a smartphone app called Skout, designed for
flirtation with strangers in the same area, admitted its use had led to
sexual assaults on three teenagers by adults. The venture-backed firm
had not verified that users of its now-shuttered teen section were under
20, giving predators easy access.
in June, a teen-oriented virtual world called Habbo Hotel, which boasts
hundreds of millions of registered users, temporarily blocked all
chatting after UK television reported that two sex predators had found
victims on the site and that a journalist posing as an 11-year-old girl
was bombarded with explicit remarks and requests that she disrobe on
Former employees said site
owner Sulake of Finland laid off many in-house workers earlier this
year, leaving it unable to moderate 70 million lines of daily chat
adequately. Sulake said it had kept 225 moderators and is still
investigating what went wrong.
failures at Skout and Habbo shocked child-safety experts and technology
professionals, who fear they will lead to a renewed panic about online
safety that is not justified by the data.
some measures, Internet-related sex crimes against children have always
been rare and are now falling (as are reports of assaults on minors
that do not involve the Net). Most sex crimes against children are
committed by people the children know, rather than strangers.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children processed 3,638
reports of online "enticement" of children by adults last year, down
from 4,053 in 2010 and 5,759 in 2009.
those companies with state-of-the-art defenses spend far more time
trying to stop online bullying and attempts to sneak profanity past
automatic word filters than they do fending off sex predators.
as the Skout case showed, there are several recent trends that have
heightened the concerns of child-safety experts: the rise of
smartphones, which are harder for parents to monitor; location-oriented
services, which are the darling of Net companies seeking more ad revenue
from local businesses; and the rapid proliferation in phone and tablet
apps, which don't always make clear what data they are using and
solid system for defending against online predators requires both
oversight by trained employees and intelligent software that not only
searches for improper communication but also analyzes patterns of
behavior, experts said.
software typically starts as a filter, blocking the exchange of abusive
language and personal contact information such as email addresses, phone
numbers and Skype login names. But instead of looking just at one set
of messages it will examine whether a user has asked for contact
information from dozens of people or tried to develop multiple deeper
and potentially sexual relationship, a process known as grooming.
can set the software to take many defensive steps automatically,
including temporarily silencing those who are breaking rules or banning
them permanently. As a result, many threats are eliminated without human
intervention and moderators at the company are notified later.
that operate with such software still should have one professional on
safety patrol for every 2,000 users online at the same time, said
Sacramento-based Metaverse Mod Squad, a moderating service. At that
level the human side of the task entails "months and months of boredom
followed by a few minutes of your hair on fire," said Metaverse Vice
President Rich Weil.
hundreds of employees and contractors to monitor websites for clients
including virtual world Second Life, Time Warner's Warner Brothers and
the PBS public television service.
Chief Executive Amy Pritchard said that in five years her staff only
intercepted something terrifying once, about a month ago, when a man on a
discussion board for a major media company was asking for the email
address of a young site user.
Software recognized that the same person had been making similar requests of others and flagged the account for Metaverse moderators. They called the media company, which then alerted authorities. Other sites aimed at kids agree that such crises are rarities.