Software developers tackle online child ‘grooming’

Four out of five children can’t tell when they are talking to an adult
posing as a child on the Internet, according to researchers working on
software to track child sex offenders online.

Jun 10, 2010
By Paul Jacques

Four out of five children can’t tell when they are talking to an adult posing as a child on the Internet, according to researchers working on software to track child sex offenders online.

Computer Scientists at Lancaster University have been working on a tool which can work out a person’s age and gender using language analysis techniques. They hope it will eventually be used to help police and law enforcement agencies spot when an adult in a chat room is masquerading as a child as part of the victim ‘grooming’ process.

For several months, groups of children and teenagers from the Queen Elizabeth School, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, have been taking part in experiments designed to provide the researchers with exactly the kind of informal web chat they need to help improve the accuracy of their software.

But the 350 students have also unwittingly been taking part in an experiment to find out if they know when they are talking to adults posing as children online.

So far, the results show that even pupils as old as 17 struggled to tell the difference:

*Overall, only 18 per cent of children taking part in the experiment guessed correctly.

*Approximately four out of five thought they were chatting to a teenager when in fact it was an adult.

*Girls were better than the boys; 22 per cent of the girls guessed correctly, only 16 per cent of the boys did.

The computer software did significantly better, correctly working out whether web chat was written by a child or an adult in 47 out of 50 cases – even when the adult was pretending to be a child.

The work is part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)/Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded project Isis. The Isis project aims to develop an ethics-centred monitoring framework and tools for supporting law enforcement agencies in policing social networks for the purpose of online child protection.

Recent years have seen a rapid rise in the number and use of online social networks. Researchers say these social networks pose two significant risks in terms of child exploitation: child sex offenders predating on children in chat rooms and distributing and sharing child abuse media through online file sharing.

Experts at Lancaster, Swansea and Middlesex universities teamed up with specialist UK law enforcement agencies to develop project Isis to help address these risks by harnessing developments in technology and to ensure that such developments maintain ethical practices.

Eventually, researchers believe the software could be used not only to identify adults posing as children but also to pick up on the ‘stylistic footprints’ of child sex offenders and trail them as they move around the Internet.

Once fully developed, these techniques will be automated, potentially freeing-up police time and adding to the expertise already deployed within investigations which identify and locate child sex offenders.

Lead researcher, Professor Awais Rashid of Lancaster University’s Department of Computing, said: “Paedophiles often pose as children online and our research indicates that children don’t find it easy to spot an adult pretending to be a child.

“In our analysis we found that four out of five children across the school got it wrong. Interestingly, the strategies they use to detect who they are talking to are also the ones that lead them to make wrong decisions – they rely on the subject matter, use of slang and even something as simple as whether the individual said he or she was an adult or a child. This really highlights the need for a safety net of some sort.

“We hope to develop an automated system that can pick up on quirks of language particular to a certain age group. These language patterns can help us to expose adults that seek to groom children online, by posing as children in chat rooms for example.

“The school has been brilliant, putting enormous effort into the project which has provided us w

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