Internet paedophiles targeted

Four out of five children can’t tell when they are talking to an adult posing as a child on the internet, according to researchers working on software to track paedophiles online.

Computer Scientists at Lancaster University have been working on a tool which can work out a person’s age and gender using language analysis techniques. They hope it will eventually be used to help police and law enforcement agencies spot when an adult in a chartroom is masquerading as a child as part of the victim ‘grooming’ process.

For several months, groups of children and teenagers from the Queen Elizabeth School, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, have been taking part in experiments designed to provide the researchers with exactly the kind of informal web chat they need to help improve the accuracy of their software.

But the 350 students have also unwittingly been taking part in an experiment to find out if they know when they are talking to adults posing as children online.

So far the results show that even pupils as old as 17 struggled to tell the difference – overall, only 18% of children taking part in the experiment guessed correctly. Approximately four out of five thought they were chatting to a teenager when in fact it was an adult.

The computer software did significantly better correctly working out whether web chat was written by a child or an adult in 47 out of 50 cases, even when the adult was pretending to be a child.

Experts at Lancaster, Swansea and Middlesex Universities have joined forces with specialist UK law enforcement to develop a project to help address these risks  by harnessing developments in technology and to ensure that such developments maintain ethical practices.

Eventually, researchers believe the software could be used not only to identify adults posing as children but also to pick up on the ‘Stylistic foot prints’ of paedophiles and trail them as they move around the internet. 

Once fully developed, these techniques will be automated, potentially freeing up police time and adding to the expertise already deployed within investigations which identify and locate child sex offenders.