[Paleopsych] New Scientist: Software agent targets chatroom paedophiles

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jan 29 16:58:32 UTC 2005

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,"
    she says.

    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

More information about the paleopsych mailing list