Fortune Magazine
Fast Forward

The Net and children: still scary

No matter how sophisticated the defenses, companies like MySpace and Facebook are subject to thousands of intrusions from sexual predators. Fortune's David Kirkpatrick examines a hot topic for Net businesses.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Despite all its virtues, the Internet has created a raft of new threats to our children. Sexual predators and abusive pedophiles are newly empowered by the Net, and neither parents nor society have yet figured out how to respond. However bad you think the problems are, they're probably worse.

Those were some conclusions of a panel of experts on children and the Net that I moderated last week at the RSA Security conference in San Francisco. RSA assembled an impressive group, including a pediatrician expert in child abuse, a top prosecutor from the Department of Justice, a reporter who uncovered shocking facts about social networking phenomenon MySpace, and the chief privacy officer of Facebook. (To watch a video of the panel, which requires a free registration, go here.)

Dr. Sharon Cooper, who runs a group called Developmental and Forensic Pediatrics, spoke about sexual predators who target children on social networks. Cooper says these astonishingly cyber-savvy criminals are typically spend about six months in online dialogue with children before suggesting they meet in person. "When someone is instant-messaging a child all the time and saying things like 'I was waiting for you to come home from school,' it's really easy for kids to start to think that this really is their friend," she says. Cooper says all parents should insist on seeing their children's MySpace or Facebook page. "Any kind of monitoring is a good thing," she says.

She applauds MySpace for releasing software which will enable parents to determine if someone using their Internet connection is a member. It also will reveal the screen name of such users as well as the age they claim to be. MySpace rules prohibit members under 14, but many kids disregard this and simply lie. At least with the new software parents will know they're doing so.

Among my daughter's friends in Manhattan, there were several who, when they were 12 and 13, had MySpace profiles claiming they were 16 or 18. At least one showed a photo of herself in her bra, not far from the name of her school. Such behavior is, sadly, not unusual, according to Cooper and others on the panel.

Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the child exploitation and obscenity section of the DOJ, has additional concerns. "Overnight the Internet changed everything," he says, "because the pedophiles learned they were not alone." He says the Net has emboldened many of them to act in ways even more awful than before. "The Net has created communities of people -- including both those who like old cars and those who like child pornography," he explains.

But to gain credibility in such groups, he says, "there's the incentive to create images of new types of abuse." So younger and younger children are being abused in more and more depraved ways, and being photographed or video taped. Oosterbaan explained that by far the greatest risk of abuse for children still comes, as it always has, from people they know personally. Those hiding-in-plain-site predators are the ones being influenced and goaded on by these new Internet communities.

The prosecutor appealed to techies to help law enforcement officials come up with better ways to monitor and track aberrant behavior. He applauded efforts in Congress to push for software that searches online images so police can be alerted when illegal content is found. He said that the top priority for U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, after the war on terrorism, is improving protections for children online.

Kevin Poulsen, an editor at Wired News, described a project he undertook to match names in the Federal government's list of convicted sex offenders with names of people with MySpace pages. His careful, multi-month effort identified over 700 matches, some of whom were openly soliciting children and calling them obviously sexual names. Poulsen was critical of MySpace for only now attempting similar efforts on its own. He believes the service could do dramatically more to police its content using software tools.

Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly explained how Facebook approaches issues of privacy. While the default settings on MySpace allow anyone to see anyone else's information (though since last June the default for those under 16 is private), at Facebook your information is only viewable by those at your school or organization, or by those you actively invite to see it. "We've taken a radically different approach to information access than other sites," says Kelly. For the most part, the people you interact with on Facebook are people you also know offline.

MySpace Chief Security Officer Himanshu Nigam was originally scheduled to join the panel, but canceled when the Florida legislature held child-safety related hearings at which he was asked to testify. But I reached him afterward. He strongly disputed Poulsen's notion that MySpace isn't doing enough, though he said "the more questions the better on security." He continued: "Nobody should be competing about safety. Everybody should be learning from each other."

But he did criticize Wired News, saying it had refused to share the list of names Poulsen accumulated in his research. "I don't understand that, when it comes to protecting people on the Internet," he said. Nigam outlined numerous security and safety-related steps being taken at the service, and described a major effort MySpace has undertaken with a company called Sentinel Tech to develop a comprehensive database of the 595,000 convicted U.S. sex offenders. He says it will not only help MySpace keep such people off its site but should aid law enforcement as well. In addition, MySpace is pushing both state and federal governments to pass legislation requiring all convicted offenders to register their email addresses, and to create severe penalties for those who register on social networks with a false email address. The company also endorses laws to make it a crime in itself to lie about your age and then solicit minors online.

Among other things, MySpace now deploys various software tools to detect anomalous and inappropriate behavior, "and we're deleting 30,000 profiles a week based on that," he said. I came away from the panel convinced that online sexual safety is certain to become an ever-bigger public issue. This was one of the first such panels to have been presented before a large general audience. It won't be the last. (For another account of the panel, see CNET's coverage.)  Top of page