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Friday, January 30, 2009

Cleaning up a checkered digital past

I hope this doesn't sound familiar to any of your kids: "A recent college grad with a distinctive last name would like to get rid of an entry on someone else's long-abandoned online journal. The entry mentions her full name in a rambling tale of drug-induced debauchery and sexual high jinks. It always shows up as the fourth or fifth result in a Google search on her name" - a problem, since she's now trying to get a job, reports Computerworld, referring to this as a real-life example. Basically, people have four options in cleaning up their online image: 1) Find and appeal to the person who posted the photos and associated text, 2) file an abuse report or take-down request with the site hosting that profile or blog entry, 3) pay a service such as or to do the above sort of legwork for you, and/or 4) create search-engine-friendly Web pages about yourself and/or a blog that push the negative stuff down in the search results. ComputerWorld offers a lot more detail, as well as other tough reputation scenarios, so check it out. The good news is, the above, fairly typical reputation situation has a pretty good chance of getting deleted. The bad news in the article was that ComputerWorld's reporters, who tried the do-it-yourself approach themselves, ended up with no idea of who among all the contacts they pursued actually got those images taken down.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

200 virtual worlds for kids

That's virtual worlds for youth that are now "live, planned, or in active development," according to Virtual Worlds Management. In its coverage, CNET reports that "the under-7 market (if there is such a thing) is the most heavily targeted with 107 worlds aiming for market share," with "the teen market ... relatively wide open." Virtual Worlds Management also found an increase in virtual worlds aimed at families with kids 3+, CNET says. The array of countries where these "worlds" are based is amazing: Besides North America, they're in Spain, China, Ukraine, France, Israel, Hong Kong, Denmark, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Belgium, Austria, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, and Poland - virtually all linked to from the Virtual Worlds Management page above.

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Data privacy: Be extra alert these days

This is timely news, since yesterday the United States, Canada, and 27 European celebrated the third-annual Data Protection Day (see Computer Weekly). Computer security experts are saying that cybercriminals are taking advantage of "the fear and confusion created by tumbling financial markets" with a "massive wave of schemes to steal people's personal data," USATODAY reports. Panda Security told the paper that the number of malicious software programs circulating around the Net "tripled to more than 31,000 a day in mid-September, coinciding with the sudden collapse of the US financial sector." What to be on the alert for: ads, emails, IMs, bulletins, comments, etc. promoting anti-virus programs, get-rich-quick opps, funny or suggestive videos, etc. - basically everything. Just be on the alert and tell your kids it's just good to be skeptical about messages that make something sound really good or interesting. There really is something to "think before you click." [See also "Beware of Facebook 'Friends' Who May Trash Your Laptop" in a Wall Street Journal blog.]

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pennsylvania case study: Social-networking risk in context

This is interesting in light of criticism by state attorneys general of the peer-reviewed research in the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report this month: a just-released study from the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (CSRIU). The attorneys general have said the research is outdated (it's actually not, but see the Wall Street Journal) and not enough about predators in social-network sites, so study author Nancy Willard analyzed some data that couldn't be more current: all online predator arrests in Pennsylvania from 2005 through the middle of this month, cited in press releases in Attorney General Tom Corbett's Web site.

In a recent statement, General Corbett said, "I believe this [Task Force] report is incredibly misleading.... The threat is real.... In the last four years, my office has arrested 183 predators, all of whom have used the Internet for the purpose of contacting minors to engage in sexual activity."

No one - in the Task Force report, the research community, or certainly the online-safety field - disagrees that online predation is a risk, and all agree that the attorneys general are performing an important public service in reducing Internet-initiated predation. The risk does need to be put into context, though. A whole lot of parents (those of the 65% of US teens with social-network profiles, according to Pew/Internet) would really like to know how dangerous social networking actually is, since it's so much a part of their kids' lives now.

Willard's analysis looks at 1) Internet-related child sexual exploitation in context (what proportion of overall exploitation involves even the Internet, much less a single social technology on it) and 2) social networking in the context of all online social technologies teens use - chat, IM, etc.

Internet-related child sexual abuse in Pa.

  • During one year (FY '06-'07) Pennsylvania rape crisis centers and sexual assault programs served 9,934 child victims of sexual abuse, Willard reports.
  • Over four years (2005 through ’08), the Pennsylvania attorney general's office made 183 arrests concerning Internet-related child sexual abuse through its Child Predator Unit.
  • Only 8 of the 183 cases involved actual minors (the rest were sting operations involving police posing as minors) - though certainly these arrests may've prevented cases involving minors.
  • Only 5 of the 183 involved sexual contact.

    The only national figure we have is from 2000, when the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that 508 out of 65,000 child sexual exploitation cases were Internet-initiated (where offender and victim "met" for the first time online). [An update from the CACRC is expected to be released soon.]

    Social networking compared to other Net technologies

    Willard writes that, "because the attorneys general have been focusing their attention on the social networking sites, MySpace and Facebook, this analysis gave special attention to any case that mentioned any activity occurring on either of these two sites." She found that:

  • 144 of the sting operations involved chat, 11 instant messaging, and 9 unspecified in the press releases; the rest were cases of child porn possession.
  • Only one case involved both a teenager and MySpace, "a re-arrest of a person who had already been arrested through a sting," Willard reports.
  • One case involved a police officer committing child sex crimes: He "was arrested for sexual abuse of many teens with whom he had interacted in the line of duty. [He] also had a MySpace account with links to teen girls, but there was no assertion that these communications had led to sexual activity."
  • "One predator in a sting provided the agent with a link to his Facebook page," Willard writes.
  • "In 5 of the stings that took place in a chat room [no minor involved], reference was made to the fact that the predator had either looked at the 'teen’s' MySpace profile or suggested the 'teen' look at his account."
  • And the Child Predator Unit itself has, since November 2006, "maintained one or more public sting profiles [depicting teens] on MySpace," but in four years not one arrest has occurred as a result of communications through its fake teen MySpace profiles.

    What Willard concluded was that, though a single state's arrests are not a representative sample, "the arrest reports on the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s site fully support the insight and conclusions of the Berkman Task Force Research Advisory Board. The incidents of online sexual predation are rare. Far more children and teens are being sexually abused by family members and acquaintances.... It appears that chat rooms are far less safe than social networking sites and that there is limited inclination and ability of predators to use social networking sites to contact potential teen victims.

    "However," she notes, "some predators are apparently looking at non-protected social networking profiles to obtain more information about victims," and more research on the secondary role social and media-sharing sites might be playing is needed. The attorneys general are right - we need more granular understanding of how predators operate - and we can only get that when they make their case records available to the research community. By law, the Electronic Privacy Communications Act, Internet service providers (including social sites) can't share data on users' communications without a subpoena or other court instrument. Once that subpoena has been served, for example by an attorney general's office, that information can be made public. Let's hope the attorneys general, who didn't provide predator data to the Task Force researchers whose report they're criticizing, can soon make it available to the research community.

    Let's broaden the discussion

    But online crime needs to be seen in context too. Crime must be addressed, but so much of what is happening online - including among teens, of course - is good. Or neutral. Or bad but not necessarily criminal. Increasingly, the Web mirrors all of "real life." Our kids deserve more from parents than fear about it and from the rest of us than overemphasis on crime.

    I like the metaphor used by Barry Joseph of Global Kids, a nonprofit organization in New York that does a lot of educational work with youth in virtual worlds. Referring to Teen Second Life, an all-teen virtual world that may merge with the main SL world, he writes, "Why is it important for youth to have their own community? How is this different from a focus on keeping youth safe? The difference is that keeping youth safe, while a desired goal, sells everyone short. Youth deserve support to access their inherent abilities to fully participate in society.

    "Let's take the example of a playground," Joseph continues. "What makes a playground safe? Recreational equipment that isn't broken, for example. Barriers to keep out drug dealers or predatory adults. Authority figures to police the space. How would this playground change if it were redesigned to not just keep youth safe but also support their development? The recreational equipment would be selected with an eye toward their developmental impact, such as supporting collaboration or creative play.... The authority figure would do more than just watch and observe but get actively involved, building supporting relationships with the youth, and offer activities designed to engage and develop their abilities."

    How might our kids' experience of the social Web change if we were to redesign our collective thinking about it and them - if we saw them less as potential victims and more as participants in and producers of a digital place they can help make safe?

    Related links

  • "How risky are social networking sites?", by Michele Ybarra and Kimberly Mitchell in the journal Pedatrics: "Our findings suggest that 15% of all youth report being targeted by unwanted sexual solicitation, 4% in a social networking site specifically. Similarly, 32.5% of youth report being harassed, either by threats or aggressive comments, or having rumors spread about them," 9% while on a social networking site specifically. "Youth are less likely to be targeted for unwanted sexual solicitation in social networking sites than they are through IM and in chat rooms, however, and are less likely to be a target of harassment on social networking sites than they are through IM."
  • For even more context (and a view from Washington), head over to Adam Thierer's blog,
  • "New study challenges attorneys general on predator danger," by Larry Magid of CBS/CNET and
  • "Social networking benefits validated" in the Washington Times
  • "Serious informal learning: Key online youth study" in NetFamilyNews
  • "Greatest Internet threat to teens may be teens themselves" - best coverage of Task Force report in the mainstream media I've seen, appropriately in the Los Angeles Times's Health section
  • "Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released," my thoughts on the Task Force report
  • ISTTF report

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  • Tuesday, January 27, 2009

    Britain's 'child protection database'

    This is what some in the UK call "child protection"? The BBC reports that "a child protection database" containing "the name, address, parents' contact details, date of birth, school, and doctor of every child in England" is being established "to improve information-sharing between professionals working with children." It will be accessible to 390,000 people described in the article as "local authorities, police, health services, and children's charities." Parents will not be allowed to remove their children's information from the database, the BBC adds. Children's Minister Baroness Morgan said "there will be provision for 'shielding' the details of young people facing risk if they were identified," the BBC reports. It says Conservatives attacked the £224m ($315.5 million) database as "another expensive data disaster waiting to happen," leading one to wonder if anyone remembers that UK database security breach in 2007 that jeopardized the personal information of "virtually every child in Britain" (see my item on this). [Thanks to QuickLinks for pointing this news out.]

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    Friending Mom or Dad?

    I had a feeling that at least some of social networking's growth had to do with parents joining to learn about this huge presence in their kids' lives. Now the Pew Internet Project has some data at least on grownups, if not parents. "The share of adult internet users who have a profile on a social-networking site has more than quadrupled in the past four years - from 8% in 2005 to 35% now," Pew reports. A few interesting observations from Social Computing Magazine's coverage of the Pew study: Like teens, adults use social sites to communicate with people they already know (89%), and most have profiles in multiple sites (51%). Among US users 18+, MySpace is twice as popular as Facebook (50% compared to 22%). Here's the breakdown by age on who has social-network profiles: 75% of people 18-24; 57% 25-34; 30% 35-44; 19% 45-54; 10% 55-64; 7% 65+. Here, too, is Business Week's coverage, and the Washington Post talks about job-hunting with social sites.

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    Monday, January 26, 2009

    New PC worm infecting millions

    The New York Times called it the newest "digital plague." "Known as Conficker or Downadup, it is spread by a recently discovered Microsoft Windows vulnerability, by guessing network passwords and by hand-carried consumer gadgets like USB keys," according to the Times, adding that experts are calling it the worst worm since the Slammer of 2003. Microsoft says there's no single solution to the problem, but it did issue a patch last October. Security experts told the Times that the worm's success was "due in part to lax security practices by both companies and individuals, who frequently do not immediately install updates." Washington Post computer security writer Brian Krebs has details on the worm's origins.

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    More than a billion Web users

    The Web passed the 1 billion user mark last month, according to comScore. That's a billion Web site visitors aged 15+, using home and work computers, in the months of December. So - given the rapid rise in Web browsing and social networking via mobile phones (especially in Europe and Asia) - the number could well be higher. ComScore says "the Asia-Pacific region accounted for the highest share of global Internet users at 41%, followed by Europe (28% percent), North America (18%), Latin-America (7%), and the Middle East & Africa (5%). Here's CNET's coverage, as well as an earlier post on MySpace and Facebook numbers.

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