Caution, Children Surfing

How can we protect children on the Internet without invading their privacy? Two new software companies believe they have the answer.

The demons were reawakened yet again last week, with the latest news of a boy committing suicide after he was harassed by his friends on Facebook and yet another case of a girl ostensibly raped by youngsters she met on Facebook. Anxieties are running high among parents of adolescent children who spend time on Facebook and the Internet, and for good reason. Many of these parents feel impotent in face of the unknown (at least for them ) that is playing an increasingly significant role in their children's lives.

To be sure, there are software solutions out there that address these concerns, but they seem to suffer from some very fundamental problems. Two Israeli companies are trying to change all this by providing solutions that are friendlier to parent and child, as well as sensitive to the relationship between them.

internet - Haaretz - January 11 2011
SenseGon founders Tal Yaari, left, and Omer Efrat. Below, the predictive behavior program designed to protect kids on the web.Haaretz

Although pedophiles, the modern equivalent of the Big Bad Wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood," are the big fear of most parents, recent cases show they are not the only problem out there. Golan Journo, the professional director of Yelem, a website that helps children in distress, explained that the anonymity lost in the Facebook era is still there when it comes to cyber-bullying, and even if it doesn't do so in absolute terms, the Internet relaxes inhibitions.

"It's like the cartoon of the cat looking in a mirror and seeing a lion there," he said. "In the real world there are inhibitions connected to shame, guilt and anxiety. On the Web, these inhibitions sometimes disappear, which makes it possible to identify more with the aggressor."

Zvia Algali, an expert on social learning and an adviser to the Israeli Internet Association, explained that after a certain age, children already know how to circumvent the protective software quite easily, and therefore, the software provides parents with a false sense of security. Some of the software solutions use the best of Internet spy tools, like screenshots of the children's chat sessions and surveillance of every keystroke. They send messages to parents when their children enter a site considered problematic or when a problematic phrase or word comes up during the course of their chats. This creates several problems, most prominently, a crude invasion of children's privacy. Ultimately, this attempt by parents to demonstrate an interest in their children's lives can backfire as a result. In addition, the software inundates parents with raw information they are not always capable of understanding or interpreting.

According to Hanan Lavie, CEO of United Parents Online, studies show that nowadays children are spending seven-and-half hours a day online - 38 percent of this time on social networks and Messenger. According to Omer Efrat of SenseGon Technologies, a child of 13 to 14 sends and receives nearly 400 messages a day on the computer. "For girls who use Facebook a lot this can mount up to 600 or 700 messages a day," he said.

Efrat, who founded SenseGon with this friend Tal Yaari, told Haaretz that "up until a few years ago, the bulk of the technologies specializing in the search for threats by means of semantics searched for certain words or phrases. But the language or the way people use it for connecting on Facebook is different. It's not a natural language but a natural sub-language."

Learning behavior

The solution they have developed, a program called Kangaroo, does not focus on a single phrase or word but rather on a system that learns children's behavior patterns over time and learns to map all the relationship networks in their lives. "The aim is to understand what role is played by each of the virtual friends," said Efrat. "In fact, it is a sort of prediction of the chances a relationship will take a certain turn." Efrat said that the software is able to characterize relationships with family members and friends as well as harmful relationships."There is a DNA of extortion relationships, and it is this DNA that our engine knows how to identify," he said. The system analyzes 200 different parameters in order to identify whether a certain relationship is taking a problematic direction. The SenseGon system is now operating as part of a pilot project among 250 families in Herzliya.

Efrat said that he and Yaari befriended one another in elementary school and have not parted ways since. When they were conscripted, they studied together in a programming course. In the army, they worked with many artificial intelligence systems similar to the one they developed, although these didn't assess risk on the Web. "If we were a security company, it would have been a lot easier for us to raise money but we opted to go into this niche," he said.

Like SenseGon, United Parents Online uses a system that analyzes relationships over time.

But, according to Lavie, it also adds a social dimension, similar to applications like Waze, which use information gathered from masses of users. Relying on all the users and their relationships, the software developed by Lavie's company is able to corroborate information and find out whether a given user is contacting a number of the children who use the software.

The two technologies compete, and therefore, it comes as no surprise that in conversations with both Efrat and Lavie, similar issues come up. Both say that in contrast to what they wanted in the past, many parents today do not want to see the raw material from their children's conversations, mainly because they are concerned about invading their privacy. Neither Efrat nor Lavie are surprised to hear that their programs have become a source of considerable anxiety. Whether we want it or not, Lavie said, this world is already here and the children are already inside it. Efrat said he is worried about the overly enthusiastic response of law enforcement agencies to their solutions, noting that regulation of the field is a must. The two are already meeting with various members of Knesset and representatives of other agencies in this regard.

Like the Mossad

Efrat said he imagines his company functioning like an intelligence agency that has to provide reports to the head of Military Intelligence, who doesn't want to read hundreds of messages but just wants to get a page-and-a-half assessment summarizing risks and opportunities.

All those interviewed for this piece warned against being frightened by the children and relating to them only as an intelligence target.

Rather, they said, it's important to share concerns with the children as well as the warnings the software provides.

Indeed, according to Efrat, the warnings are sent first and foremost to the children, and one of their important roles is education. "The real work has to be done with the child," he said. "The aim is to make it possible for them to see things they are not looking at in the right way at the moment. It's like sitting a pedagogical adviser down next to them. You give them insights that can stimulate critical thinking. The aim is that once they reach the age of 14, they won't be needing this any longer."

Ultimately, though, with all due respect to the software, everyone agrees that there is no substitute for a good relationship with parents and that software can provide only support, or intelligence.

According to Journo, the "disturbance," as he jocularly calls adolescence, requires readjusting the home and maintaining channels that are as open as possible. Parents have to make themselves present, to be there. And in their conversations with their children, they need to try to reinforce the positive experience of actions that demonstrate maturity and emotional strength.