Protecting against online child predators
Sunday, June 01, 2003
Naperville recognized for child safety By Kathryn Monroe
Photos courtesy of MSN
Internet safety expert Detective Micheal "Sully" Sullivan from the Naperville Police Department educates 4th graders from Scott Elementary regarding the importance of online safety as part of the Cyber Safe Cities program.
Kids have taken over the Internet, and while there are great places for them to visit in cyberspace, there are also predators, pornography and other inappropriate materials lurking. The Cyber Safe Cities initiative, launched by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Internet service provider MSN, recognizes cities making advances in cyber safety to increase awareness and education. In May, Naperville was named one of only six Cyber Safe Cities nationwide, in part because of its ground-breaking Computer Crimes and Child Exploitation unit in the Naperville Police Department. As part of the Cyber Safe Cities initiative, Naperville's cyberdetective, Michael Sullivan, spent the month traveling around the country teaching other officers how to protect children. Sullivan started the Naperville cyber crimes unit, is a lead investigator with the Illinois Attorney General's Task Force on Child Pornography and Internet Investigation and has written a book, Safety Monitor, about protecting kids online. Chicago Parent talked with the Naperville native and 20-year Naperville police veteran to get the scoop on how parents can protect their kids online. Q: There is obviously a lot to worry about for children's online safety. What advice would you give to parents? A: The No. 1 thing I would say to parents is talk to your children, keep the dialogue going, find out what they're doing online, what they like to do online, have them teach you how to use the computerÉ. Use the time you have with them to the best extent you can. There's only certain times that your child's actually gonna talk to you, take advantage of those times. If you can, use the computer to be one of the good times. Q: How did you get started working in cyber safety? A: I got started like everyone else. I'm a parent and 13 years ago my daughter came home and needed a computer for school, so we got one. At work we were getting a new chief who made computerizing the department one of his priorities, so learning at home went hand-in-hand with learning at work. Shortly after computerizing at work, Innocent Images, a nationwide operation done by the Federal Bureau of Investiga-tion, asked for our assistance in a local case, and that opened our eyes in Naperville that the children in Naperville could be victimized by people on the Internet. Little by little, I learned how to use the computer, the Internet, so we could protect the children in Naperville from attempts by predators online coming after children. Q: When did cyber safety start to pose problems for children? A: The need to protect children was recognized fairly early on. It's just the ability for each department to get online and have the equipment that's necessary. ... The problem is growing exponentially as the Internet grows. What we need is to get the education to our children to understand how dangerous answering some questions can be. We also need parents to learn. That's the high point of Stay Safe Online, www.staysafeonline.info. Parents can go to the Web site and get the tips and tools needed to protect their children online. ... One thing I recognized after being involved in computer crime/child exploitation cases, most parents are intimidated by the computer. What we need to do is get parents to not be afraid of it. ... Q: There is a lot of inappropriate material out there. What is the biggest danger today facing children on the Internet? A: The biggest danger online right now for children is the predator. Parents need to guard against someone coming in through the computer and trying to lure their child out of the house. ... The chat rooms are the virtual playground our children go in. The instant messaging is a private forum. Predators have used the chat room as a hunting ground, but the instant message to contact a child. Limit who can e-mail your child. Talk to them and find out who they want on their buddy list. Don't let someone on their e-mail list that they don't know. Keep that open dialogue with you and your child. Q: It seems that many parents think they do prepare their kids and that their kids are safe. What's the reality? A: The fact is that within 10 or 20 seconds any child that's not been protected by a parent with parental controls or filtering software is at danger of being contacted by a predator. ... Online is an open community where you're interacting with everyone, including the criminal element. They're being tricked when they're online into conversing with someone that is lying to them about who they are, how old they are, what they like and don't like. Over the course of the conversation, and over time, once they feel that have established trust and friendship with the child, some of them will come out and tell the truth, but the child now feels that this is their friend. They don't see it as a lie because it's their friend. We're trying to educate the children, give them the tools and the knowledge that when someone is talking to you in this manner, they're not your friend. Q: In addition to being a cyber safety expert, you are also a parent. What do you do at home? A: Yes, I have a high school freshman and a college junior. My children would tell you that my work has affected my ability to be overly friendly on the computer. We use secondary software [Cyber Sentinal] to help protect the computer. It prevents personal information from being released over the computer. If my son tries to release our last name, address or phone number, it blocks that and sends me an e-mail immediately. It works well. I think we have a better relationship because of the open dialogues. It's come in handy to be able to sit down and talk to them about what's going on. At times it's been fun. ... Q: You work with computer crime and child exploitation cases. But what does that mean? A: The Naperville police department, since 1996, has been involved in the investigation and arrest of a little over 100 child predators that were online trying to lure children out of their homes to have sex or transmitting pornography. We continue in both a reactive role, still accepting cases from parents, or in a proactive role where our department has officers that go on as children hoping that when a predator gets on, he will interact with our police officer and not children. Our hope is that we can bring them away from the children and keep that behavior from getting to any of our children seeing it. ... Q: What's the worst thing you've encountered in your 20 years of work with online safety? A: The worst cases that I've seen were the ones where the children were murdered. That's something we try to prevent through education. We prefer the molesters don't even get to the children. ... We need to get the information to the children that will prevent them from being vulnerable to this type of attack. Q: Naperville has been recognized as a Cyber Safe City, one of only six cities nationwide. What makes Naperville worthy of this award? A: In addition to the computer crimes unit, we have the Safekids program. It's a learning program for children between fourth and sixth grades teaching them the street smarts for the information superhighway. We teach a person that if they're in public and someone pulls up in a car, they're supposed to run away from the car. Or if someone walks up on the playground with a leash, asking you to help find his dog, they know to get away from that person. They recognize those as strangers in dangerous situations. Safekids help them recognize the strangers in dangerous situations on the Internet. ...Kathryn Monroe is a Chicago Parent intern and a junior at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.