New Smartphone App Could Root Out Paedophiles


A new mobile phone application developed at Lancaster University can spot adults pretending to be children

Researchers at Lancaster University have developed a mobile phone application to help children tell the difference between friends their own age and adults masquerading as children, designed to prevent grooming by paedophiles.

The software, which is called Child Defence, uses language analysis technology to identify language quirks peculiar to different age groups. Trials showed that the software was at least as effective as a server-based alternatives.

The idea is to empower young people to protect themselves as they surf the net, rather than relying solely on parents to control their children’s online activity. The app can also link in with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, enabling children to scan chat text and build up profiles of individuals who they are chatting to online.

An addition to parental supervision

“Nothing can take the place of education and parental supervision when it comes to keeping children safe online. But with more and more young people accessing the web on mobile devices away from home or in the privacy of their rooms we think it is important to give children as many tools as possible to protect them from harm,” said James Walkerdine of Lancaster University spin out company Isis Forensics.

“Our research shows that children find it very difficult to spot adults posing as children on social networks.” he added. “This software improves children’s chances of working out that something isn’t right. Using state of the art language analysis software, it gives children a powerful tool which can help them work out who they are really talking to online.”

The software is currently undergoing final testing before being made available as iPhone, Google and Nokia phone apps. You can watch a full demo of the software here.

The new app adds to an array of technologies designed to help children protect themselves online. For example, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre has gained a lot of publicity over the last year, after lobbying Facebook to place a “panic button” on the social network for threatened children to use if they think a paedophile might be pestering them.

Despite initially resisting the idea, Facebook finally reached a compromise with CEOP, stating that both organisations were “aligned on making the Internet safer.”

Online grooming

A report released by CEOP in November 2010 found that, of the 6,291 reports it received last year, a quarter (1,536) were related to grooming and a further quarter (1,553) were related to the possession and distribution of images. Eight percent (513) involved contact sexual abuse by a suspect.

CEOP also warned of an increasing number of explicit ‘self-taken’ images by children and young people, indicating that many are prepared to take risks in making online contact with strangers. “The scale and nature of reports received by CEOP’s child protection specialists demonstrate an ongoing need to educate and inform young people about the risk of posting inappropriate images of themselves online,” said CEOP chief executive Jim Gamble at the time.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has welcomed the new Child Defence app, but warns that parents must not become complacent.

“It can lull us into thinking that the child is safe and therefore we can move onto something else,” Chris Cloke, head of child protection told BBC News. “I would certainly say that measures of this sort can be helpful but they need to be seen as one of the wider armoury we have for tackling child sexual abuse.”

Last year the government launched a campaign to introduce a digital code for online safety – similar to the Green Cross Code for road safety. The code carries the slogan, “Zip it, Block it, Flag it”, encouraging children to keep their online passwords private, to block people who intimidate them, and to flag up anything online that has upset them.

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