A recent report by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force says that child exploitation on the Net and elsewhere is worrisome but online social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace, are not to blame for the bulk of it since most reported cases predated their existence.
Among other findings: children are unlikely to be propositioned by adults online unless they are willing participants and are already at risk because of poor home environments, substance abuse or other problems. And, despite some high-profile cases (for example, MySpace was sued in 2006 lawsuit by a 14-year-old girl who said she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she met on the site, according to Reuters), "bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face," both online and offline.
The task force was created a year ago by the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking, a joint effort of the 50 federal state attorneys general, and was led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington, D.C., lobby that pushes for public policy designed to keep technology from violating individual privacy rights and a part of the task force, endorsed the findings. CDT president and CEO Leslie Harris acknowledged in a statement that the task force's findings run counter to public perception and "media hype" that sexual predation is a "rampant problem" on social networks.
But not all task force members were on board. Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who called for the task force's formation, told The New York Times that he disagreed with the report's findings, saying they "downplayed the predator threat," relied on outdated research and failed to provide a specific plan for improving the safety of social networking.
Researchers and law enforcement are likewise divided over this thorny issue, which involves child safety as well as the privacy of Web users. Scientific American.com reported in August that a group of researchers at Lancaster University in England and law-enforcement officials at the U.K.'s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (CEOP) is developing software that tracks the Web's evolving child pornography lexicon as well as predators' chat strategies to help law-enforcement agencies catch the most secretive of these criminals before they strike. Lancaster University's three-year Isis Project uses linguistic analysis to keep tabs on these Internet-savvy pedophiles.
However, Anthony Finkelstein, a computer scientist at University College London who has written software to help agencies share data about child welfare cases, says there's not enough research to indicate that Internet-enabled pedophilia is a critical issue. He points to a University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center study from last year of online crimes against children that estimated deception took place in only 5 percent of these cases.
The task force also evaluated age verification and identity authentication, filtering and auditing, text analysis, and biometrics technology that some believe could help shore up the security of social networks. Ultimately, the task force found that many of the technologies had potential but that nearly all of them work in a way that some might view as invasions of their privacy. (If a social networking Web site was to require its members to submit digital fingerprints, for example, that site would have to store that biometric data, making it a target for hackers.) The rejection of this technology wasn't surprising, however. The task force consisted of 29 organizations—including AOL, Facebook, Google, MySpace and Yahoo!—many of which would be the ones having to invest in this technology, if the task force deemed it necessary.
Image: © iStockphoto.com; RichVintage