[Paleopsych] New Scientist: Software agent targets chatroom paedophiles
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Software agent targets chatroom paedophiles
20 March 2004
PAEDOPHILES attempting to "groom" children in internet chatrooms can
now be detected by a computer program.
The program works by putting on a convincing impression of a young
person taking part in a chatroom conversation. At the same time it
analyses the behaviour of the person it is chatting with, looking for
classic signs of grooming: paedophiles pose as children as they
attempt to arrange meetings with the children they befriend.
Called ChatNannies, the software was developed in the UK by Jim
Wightman, an IT consultant from Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. It
creates thousands of sub-programs, called nanniebots, which log on to
different chatrooms and strike up conversations with users and groups
of users. If a nanniebot detects suspicious activity it sends an alert
to Wightman and emails a transcript of the conversation. If he
considers the transcript suspicious, he contacts the relevant police
force, giving them the internet address of the suspect user. He claims
that tip-offs from his software have already led to police
investigations, but New Scientist was unable to verify this before
going to press.
The nanniebots do such a good job of passing themselves off as young
people that they have proved indistinguishable from them. In
conversations with 2000 chatroom users no one has rumbled the bots,
Wightman says. Chatbots scarcely distinguishable from people were
predicted by computer pioneer Alan Turing as long ago as 1950, says
Aaron Sloman, an artificial intelligence expert at the University of
Birmingham in the UK.
So he is not surprised the bots are so convincing, especially as their
conversation is restricted to a limited topic - like youth culture,
say - and is kept relatively short. "It's not going to be too
difficult for a chatbot to look like an ordinary chatroom participant
to other users who are not even on the lookout for them," he says.
To converse realistically, ChatNannies analyses the sentences other
users type, breaks them down into verb and noun phrases, and compares
them with those in sentences it has previously encountered.
ChatNannies includes a neural network program that continually builds
up knowledge about how people use language, and employs this
information to generate more realistic and plausible patterns of
One of its tricks is to use the internet itself as a resource for its
information on pop culture. Wightman will not reveal how it judges
what is reliable information and what not. He does say, however, that
each bot has dozens of parameters that are assigned at random, to give
each one a different "personality".
"If this software works, then it would be marvellous because there is
nothing like this out there," says Chris Atkinson, the internet safety
officer with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Children in the UK. But she warns that paedophiles may outsmart it.
"The grooming activity that I have seen doesn't have to be sexual,"
Wightman says, however, that ChatNannies is sophisticated enough to
look for less obvious signs that something is amiss. It also looks for
slip-ups and inconsistencies that give away an adult posing as a
Wightman currently has 100,000 bots chatting away undetected in
chatrooms - the most he can generate on the four internet servers at
his IT practice. He would like to build more but funding is the
sticking point, as he doesn't want anyone to profit financially from
his technology. "Some companies have offered fantastic sums of money,
but all want technology ownership. And that's something that isn't
going to happen," he says.
Instead, he hopes eventually to get financial support from
government-run organisations that focus on child protection.
From issue 2439 of New Scientist magazine, 20 March 2004, page 23
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