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Friday, July 04, 2008

Predation in online gaming

Police have been saying that predators go where kids go, and they've been saying it since before there was an Internet. So the "place" that the news media and online-safety advocates are increasingly focusing on is online gaming. I first linked you to a story about this in January 2006 (see "Teen exploited while gaming"); in May, a report out of Cincinnati saying the FBI was investigating "a number of cases in southern Ohio" concerning Xbox Live; and last month we heard from a US attorney in Massachusetts that cases of man-to-minor predation involving World of Warcraft were under investigation. This week USATODAY reported on online-game predation cases in Utah and Michigan. Where the Xbox Live gaming community is concerned, "Microsoft trains police at national conferences," according to USATODAY. Parents need to know that "Xbox has password-protected 'family settings' that allow parents to turn off Internet access or track content and contacts. PlayStation and Wii also have such controls." I was delighted to learn last summer that there is some "neighborhood watch," or community policing, activity in Xbox Live (see this feature) and hope to see more evidence of this other form of protection that can be empowering for kids. For some context around all this, see this editorial too. The No. 1 message for parents in all this is the importance of teaching our kids to be alert and responsible wherever and whenever they're in places where lots of people interact, online or offline. Alert about what? See "How to recognize grooming" and "How social influencing works."

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South Africa's child abuse hotline

South Africa has joined the ranks of countries that have child pornography hotlines. The hotline is available via the Web. "The website,, which is available 24 hours, seven days a week, was launched in Johannesburg on Tuesday by Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba," South African news service Bua News reports. At least 29 countries have hotlines now. INHOPE, an international association of child abuse hotlines, lists them here.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Child info floating around the Net

The Los Angeles Times article features a very anxious mom whose story illustrates a data security issue much broader than lost or stolen laptops with databases of people's personal info on their hard drives. It's about what's happening as "vast databases of sensitive information are bought and sold by private companies" focused a lot more on monetizing millions of registered users than on protecting the users' privacy. "'s privacy policy says the site "prohibits registration by and will not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under 13'," the Times reports. "But that doesn't address the site's own data-gathering." The company told the Times it had bought the records of 260 million people from a data broker that it said was told not to include minors in the purchased data. Still, the name of the mom's 4-year-old child showed up on a page she stumbled on in "She was especially distressed that the listing for her husband's name included the family's town, Beaverton - not the sort of information she wanted anywhere near her son's identity." And now it's in the L.A. Times too.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Young sex offenders branded forever

One of the scary things about the social Web is how much exposure its users bring to their everyday lives and innermost thoughts. But think about the impact of mixing exposure - to public view or just to law enforcement - with impulsive, unthinking adolescent behavior that involves sexual exploration with peers. For example, in the state of Washington alone, "since 1997, more than 3,500 children in the state - some as young as 10, though on average about 14 - have been charged and convicted as felony sex offenders, a mark that remains on their records forever, barring them from careers in medicine, teaching or a host of other professions that serve the vulnerable," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. A 13-year-old (now 23) whose story led the article was arrested at home by himself and handcuffed to a plastic chair while his mother was called and told her "pervert son was going to jail." The vast majority of these young felons are rated least likely to reoffend, the article continues. Even so, the Post-Intelligencer reports, "Washington is among the few states to include juveniles in its sex offender management plan, assessing youths with tools designed for adults and funneling them through the courts with adult-sized punishments."

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Data insecurity on the rise

Here's one reason why verification of online children's ages or identities is a slightly scary concept: data breaches are up. What does this have to do with online kids? If age verification is required of Web sites, children's personal information would have to be stored in a database somewhere, so that Web sites' "bouncers," or ID-checking technology, will have a collection of information against which it can check the info kids provide. The problem is, "businesses, governments and universities reported a record number of data breaches in the first half of this year, a 69% increase over the same period in 2007," Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs reports, citing research from the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center. Interestingly, hacking was "the least-cited cause of data breaches in the first six months of 2008.... Instead, lost or stolen laptops and other digital storage media remain the most frequently cited cause of data breaches. See also "UK data security breach & kids." And I seem to be seeing more news of data breaches all the time, the latest for Google employees - see CNET.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Transatlantic predator panic

It kind of surprised me seeing this coming out of Britain, that "the specter of the predatory pedophile is everywhere." I thought it was everywhere only here in the US, where we've had a predator panic going for some time and it has subsided somewhat (see "Predator panic," which I wrote back in May 2006). It doesn't surprise me, however, that this good question is coming out of the UK (in the same BBC blog post): "Have we got our response to child sex abuse in proportion? Or ... are we in danger of destroying the very thing we aim to protect - a trusting relationship between adults and children?" I wish blogger Mark Easton had answered or at least expanded on that theme. Instead, he makes a different but related valid point about the sheer numbers of child abusers ("The NSPCC [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] estimates that at any one time, 1 million children are suffering sexual abuse") and how most are people the children know (and still more are never found out). But I do think that question about society's response deserves serious consideration on both sides of the Atlantic. Heightened fears lead to strong reactions, often overreaction, which reduces trust and communication between parents and children. When parents act out of fear and get categorical, teens tend to seek even more distance from them than normal adolescent development would call for and go "underground," where - not necessarily but possibly - they could be at greater risk. I think working through the risks and adult fears together, openly and calmly, is a more effective approach at both the household and societal levels.

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