A British company claims to have developed software which can spot pedophiles online and catch them in the act of 'grooming' children in chat rooms and IM sessions. Just as handwriting and voice analysis is used by law enforcement agencies the world over in order to accurately determine age, so Crisp Thinking can use its Anti Grooming Engine (AGE) to identify the unique fingerprint contained within an Internet conversation to do the same thing.
Given that according to US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales it is estimated that there are at least 50,000 pedophile predators, at any time, prowling the Internet for potential victims and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggest as many as 1 in 7 children aged between 10 and 17 have been solicited for sex online, it could be a hugely important piece of software. If it works.
Crisp Thinking insists that AGE reads between the lines to spot the potential offenders, not relying on simple keyword detection but rather understanding the context of that online conversation over time. By looking for a combination in patterns of aggression, sexual comment, solicitations for personal information and so on, the software is able to accurately determine how dangerous the chat could be. We are told to think of it in terms of an older brother, listening in on a younger siblings conversation and only telling Mom when that chat is obviously not going down the right path. Unlike the older brother, AGE gets smarter with every conversation it listens into and analyses and unlike some chat room monitoring solutions does not involve a third party eavesdropping on what the child will regard as a private conversation. If a dodgy pattern is flagged up, then AGE sends an email or SMS text message to both the parent and the child simultaneously to alert them to the danger.
The team behind the AGE project has both trained and tested it using all the available grooming conversations from successful US prosecutions of this type, as well as chat logs from 300 children who volunteered to help over a 12 month period by providing known 'good' conversation. They have also engaged the help of Professor Bill Fitzgerald, Head of Research in the Signal Processing Laboratory in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, England. He works on Bayesian inference applied to signal and data modelling apparently. Perhaps more importantly he is helping to refine and develop the AGE product further.
It remains to be seen just how well AGE works in the real world, and will need some kind of critical mass deployment to be truly effective I suspect. And that is where the problems could lay, unless a MySpace or Microsoft decide to adopt it by default. Heck, Crisp Thinking cannot even rely upon the publicity of a high profile catch followed by a successful prosecution to propel AGE into the parental psyche. It is a preventative technology after all, not one designed to bait and entrap. However, as the father of four kids myself, I sincerely hope it is as good as the technical briefings suggest and can make a real dent in the predatory pedophile problem...