National Center adds another layer to children’s safety online

For several years, I’ve been on the board of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). The organization, which is based in Alexandria, Va., is best known for helping to reunite missing children with their custodial parents or guardians, but it also strives to protect children from sexual exploitation in both the physical and cyber worlds.

In addition to its national headquarters, NCMEC operates branch offices in a handful of cities across the country and has just opened a Silicon Valley office in Palo Alto. One reason, according to NCMEC spokesperson Stacy Garret, is to be closer to the technology companies that play such an important role in the lives of children and teens. About 95 percent of American teens are online, according to Pew Research, and most are regular users of social media sites and services like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. A May 2013 Pew study found that 91 percent of teens had posted a photo of themselves online, up from 79 percent in 2006. More than seven in 10 (71 percent) post their school name, 71 percent also post the city or town where they live, and more than half (53 percent) post their email address. A fifth of teens post their cellphone number — up from only 2 percent in 2006.

None of these activities are necessarily dangerous. Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Center has found that posting of such personal information doesn’t correlate with exploitation nearly as much as such risky behaviors as talking to a stranger online about sex. The good news is that most young people are pretty smart when it comes to protecting themselves from online predators and — based on research from Pew — we also know that most kids also take at least some steps to protect their privacy.

Still, the National Center has plenty of work to do when it comes to protecting kids online. One of the goals of the new office is to work with tech companies to bake child protection into their products from day one. It’s similar to the notion of “privacy by design.” Rather than making safety an afterthought — something the company gets around to after the product has been around for a while — it’s much better if companies think about the possible dangers as they develop their products.

The nonprofit organization I co-direct, ConnectSafely.org, works closely with (and receives financial support from) Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking companies to help them think about safety, security, privacy, appropriate content and social interactions between users, and I’m happy to say that these companies employ professionals who put a lot of thought into these issues.

While my group and other Internet safety organizations can advise these companies on a range of issues such as cyberbullying and encouraging positive online interactions, NCMEC plays a unique role because of its focus on child exploitation and its close ties to law enforcement. NCMEC analysts understand — far more than I do — the extent to which children can be harmed in a variety of ways ranging from the (fortunately fairly rare) cases where children are lured into sex with people they meet online to the far more common problem of online child pornography, Child porn — also referred to as sexual abuse images — is illegal in the United States and most other countries, yet as NCMEC analysts have repeatedly pointed out, there is still a great deal of child porn being produced and distributed online and much of it is coming from the U.S. Many tech firms use Photo DNA to identify such images. The technology, which was developed by Microsoft, is being used to compare a newly found image with a database of known images to both identify a potential child porn image and determine whether it’s an old image or could be a newer picture of a child still in danger.

We also know that there are still cases in which children have been harmed as a result of an online interaction. There are a variety of issues at stake, including the risks that the child takes, the design of the product and the efforts the company makes to provide education to youth, as well as to identify and deter predatory behavior. With NCMEC’s help, it’s my hope and belief that companies will get better at that and children will get even savvier when it comes to avoiding risky behavior.

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