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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 17:59 GMT 18:59 UK
Can we really police online chat?
By Paula Dear
BBC News Online

Using a computer
The scale of the task is almost impossible to quantify
Keeping track of potentially dangerous paedophiles who lurk in online chatrooms from the relative "safety" of their own home is an onerous task.

But enforcement agencies across the globe are keen to get their act together.

This week the Virtual Global Task Force (VGTF) proposed building on the covert work already being done to track down sexual predators intent on grooming youngsters via chat rooms.

While the specifics have yet to be ironed out, the crux of the scheme is that police around the world will manually "listen in" to online conversations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Discussions are also under way about creating an automatically-generated warning message, that would flash up in response to a request for personal details.

The concept has been likened to that of 'bobbies on the beat'.

It is a visible deterrent to criminals, working alongside covert operations that use intelligence for crime detection.

I'd be worried about displacement, that these people will go off somewhere else
Rachel O'Connell

Police officers would visit selected chat rooms, it is proposed, and make themselves visible to the users, perhaps by displaying some kind of recognisable logo.

It does not promise to be comprehensive and is unlikely to involve a massive amount of manpower, the UK National Crime Squad's Assistant Chief Constable Jim Gamble says.

"We are not looking to occupy every chat room.

"We're looking to put a police presence on the internet in an overt way that reassures people" he says.

But can it have an impact, given the scale of the chat industry?

It is impossible to gauge the number of messages flying through cyberspace each day.

Any website can offer a chat service, and youngsters are also increasingly using non web-based mobile chat forums and 'peer-to-peer' networks.

Education is key

Typing 'chat' into Google yields 103,000,000 results. It's not exactly scientific, but it gives an idea of the scale of options on offer.

"How can you monitor all these millions of chatrooms? You can't, but what police are saying is that, based on their experience, they can dip in and out of certain ones," said the BBC's crime correspondent Neil Bennett.

"Of course you can't monitor them all the time."

There is constant debate about the issue of cyber-grooming - the ever-changing nature of the beast, how best to tackle it, where to target resources, how best to exchange information and shaping legislation to cope.

Speaking from an FBI conference in Washington, on international online child sexual victimisation, one UK expert said she had not seen all the details of the proposals but had some concerns about their potential effectiveness.

Rachel O'Connell, who is director of research at the University of Central Lancashire's Cyberspace Research Unit, said her instinct was that resources should go into covert action.

"I'd be worried about displacement, that these people will go off somewhere else. Whereas if you know where to look, covert operations can yield huge results.

"But what this would do is deter a small portion of people - those who are curious," she added.

We should never rely on technical ways to protect our children
Kevin Gibbs, NSPCC

While specialist groups and children's charities have broadly welcomed the proposals, they are keen to emphasise that the most effective and enduring means of tackling online grooming is by educating children and their parents.

That view is echoed by the Internet Service Providers Association, which promotes self-regulation of the industry.

Childnet International's education and awareness manager, Mary Louise Morris, said it was an "enormous task" to police chat rooms effectively.

"This sounds good as a preventative measure but my concern is that parents would look at this and think 'good, the police are monitoring chat rooms, therefore they are safe'," she said.

"Parents need to be more engaged with what their children are doing online. They are not aware enough.

"The grooming process is subtle and not always easy to spot."

'Listen to children'

Childnet worked with Rachel O'Connell in helping to produce Microsoft's new Websafecrackerz guide, which spells out in no uncertain terms the motives, tactics and language used by typical online sexual predators.

"It has pushed the boundaries in addressing these issues, instead of relying on vague messages such as 'if you feel uncomfortable by something you see on the internet, make sure you tell an adult'," Ms O'Connell says.

"We are often assuming children should know what's normal and what's not, and we are not good at teaching them how to say no."

Kevin Gibbs of the NSPCC said the proposals at least showed there was now a political and technical will to move forward.

"The Internet Service Providers used to say these kinds of things weren't possible," he said.

"It is now a myth that the internet is anonymous, and that is probably going to make some people think twice.

"But we also need to make it easier for children to be safer online, we should never rely on technical ways to protect our children.

"We can do simple things too, that are to do with listening to our children and communicating with them."


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