Both Second Life and Skype have come in for some bad publicity following media reports exposing pedophile activity on the hugely popular services. Second Life got a kicking from a German TV program called Report Mainz which claimed to have been approached by pedophiles inviting the reporter to attend ‘child pornography meetings’ within the very virtual environment.
Although this might sound like a storm in an avatars teacup, the reporter attended such a virtual meeting and was contacted by dealers in very real child pornography as a result. Second Life is, of course, cooperating with the German authorities in tracking down the culprits and has also introduced a system of age verification for its members. Those who opt not to comply with the age verification process will not, however, be excluded from the mature rated regions of the Second Life environment where pornography is rife, but rather just not have access where the creators have tagged content as being adult in nature. A subtle but important difference. Certainly it’s a good move, but not one that will have any effect on the predatory pedophile using the virtual world for a frighteningly real and evil purpose.
The second media sting came courtesy of the Sunday Times newspaper during a two week investigation of Skype, which it claims has become the preferred method for many pedophiles to locate and groom their young victims. Reporters posing as children between the ages of 10 and 14 were exposed to a bombardment of sexually explicit messages from adult men within the Skype chat sessions. One 50 year old man arranged to meet the ‘girl’ at a railway station, and the Sunday Times witnessed him turning up and greeting the reporter who he thought to be a 14 year old girl. Other men attempted to solicit lewd images and ordered the girls to perform sex acts online. Although the Sunday Times did not identify the men publically, for fear of their safety, it did identify something of a gap in the Skype system when it comes to protecting vulnerable children from predatory pedophiles.
The peer-to-peer nature of Skype makes it very difficult to track down the users, compared to a centrally hosted chat facility for example. Yahoo chat rooms can offer a more secure environment because of this, but also because they implement strict age related restrictions that include communication only with others of the same age group for minors, and a panic button that can be used to alert volunteer ‘navigators’ who patrol the chat rooms when an inappropriate approach causes concern.
Skype’s Chief Security Officer, Kurt Sauer, admitted to the Sunday Times that the investigation raised very practical issues but added that “we have not found a way to address each of the issues.”
As both someone with a professional interest in IT security and a parent of four kids ranging from 7 through to 19, I can suggest something: parental responsibility and common sense. Let’s face it, online services, new communications technology, are not the problem here – the pedophiles are. Nobody is producing TV shows and splashing headlines across the newspapers claiming that something needs to be done about DVDs because they are used to spread child porn, or disposable Pay As You Go mobile phones because they provide the pedophile with an untraceable communications tool, are they? So why pick on Second Life or Skype? Because they are not only easy targets, they will also sell well to parents who don’t understand the technology, who are scared of the technology and who are looking for something, anything, to blame their lack of parenting skills upon.
Education is the key here, and that means both educating your kids not to talk to strangers in the street or to provide the kind of personal detail that would enable a stranger online to know who you are, where you live and otherwise get under your skin. It means taking an interest in what your kids do online, and to an extent join in with them. It means learning what the services they use are, how they work and what they offer. It means talking to your kids about the dangers they could face, and how to best avoid those situations. It means being a parent, a real parent, and not just shrugging your shoulders and passing the buck of blame onto the Internet.