New virtual ID system combats Net predators

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Online predators rely on the anonymity and open access offered by the Web to lure young victims. But a new system dubbed NetIDMe – soon to be available in Canada – may break through their subterfuge.

NetIDMe Ltd. headquartered in Glasgow, United Kingdom (U.K.) recently rolled out an online identification and age verification system that allows Internet users to check the general ID information of another user before commencing online communication.

Trials with some 800 students began in the U.K. recently and the company intends to market the service in Canada, the United States and Australia.

Subscription to the online ID system is priced at around $25 a year.

NetIDMe can be used by Internet users of all ages; however, it is of particular benefit to teenagers.

In essence, the system makes it harder for adults to pose as children or teenagers online. Masquerading as teens is a usual ploy of online predators to gain the confidence of young Internet users.

Recently, a 21-year-old man in Canada allegedly used the Internet to lure and extort pornographic images from more than 100 young girls in Alberta, Ontario and the U.K.

Earlier, a 26-year-old man was nabbed after having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl he met via the popular site MySpace.com.

Because the Internet has no boundaries, it holds a great attraction for young people seeking new friends, according to Alex Hewitt, managing director of NetIDMe.

“NetIDMe provides a tool that can make the Internet a safer place,” he said.

A couple of years back, said Hewitt, he was alarmed to discover that his then 14-year-old daughter had more than 150 people in her online instant messaging chat group. “Her buddy list had 150 names, and she could not verify the age and identity of nearly a third of those entries.”

That was when Hewitt began developing the idea for NetIDMe.

The Web service requires applicants to complete a form that has to be verified and co-signed by the person’s parent or guardian and a teacher, family doctor or lawyer.

“The applicant’s ID is verified by the company by a process similar to a passport application,” said Hewitt.

Once NetIDMe has verified the information, the applicant will be given an electronic ID that contains his or her first name, gender, general location and age.

The idea is for the user to demand an online ID from the person who wants to talk with him or her over the Internet. The user in turn can provide his or her ID when asked for.

The system only works if two children communicating online have both signed up with the scheme and when both parties commit to exchanging IDs.

The product can be used with another NetIDMe product that blocks non-registered Internet users.

ChatShield, which retails for around US$36, works with NetIDMe to verify people who attempt to chat with children via MSN Messenger. If NetIDMe cannot verify the contact, the message is blocked.

Parents can also set age restrictions for contacts and add an approved contacts list such as known friends and family members.

Users are encouraged to check the identity of people they communicate with by being awarded points for each ID they check or issue. The points can be exchanged for prizes such as music downloads.

As more incidents of online crime surface, groups from diverse backgrounds have banded together in search of solutions.

Financial institutions, Internet companies and anti-child pornography groups have formed a coalition against Web sites selling juvenile pornography. For instance, Microsoft Corp. has developed Child Exploitation Tracking System or CETS. The software allows law enforcement agencies to share and analyze information about pedophiles and others who prey on children.

At least one Canadian analyst says technology cannot guarantee children’s Net safety, and proper parental guidance is still the best deterrent against online sexual predators.

“I don’t believe there is technology that can eliminate this type of crime,” said Joe Greene, vice-president of information technology security and research at the consultancy firm IDC Canada in Toronto.

Greene also said identities can be easily faked online. “Parents have to be fairly involved with their children’s online activities and take note of who they are chatting with.”

Hewitt agrees that technology has its limits. “NetIDMe is not going to provide 100 per cent protection,” he says. “In the same manner, a burglar alarm will reduce the risk of burglary, but will not guarantee you won’t be robbed.”

Greene said it was unfortunate that some technologies and measures meant to combat online predators ended up curtailing children’s use of the Internet. “I believe there should be a balance between prying into a kid’s online activity and making sure they can surf the Net and chat with their friends safely.”

Hewitt believes the pre-computer age axiom of not talking to strangers still applies. “Parents should use real world precautions to protect their children in the virtual world.”

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