Software Claims to Detect Adults Posing as Kids Online

KIRKBY LONSDALE, U.K.—New software has been developed that can identify when an adult is posing as a minor when chatting online, the Independent has reported.

The claim is supported by a trial conducted at the Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, in which 350 young people participated. 

The first phase of the trial involved testing the percentage of children who could correctly guess when they were chatting with an adult online. Only 18 percent guessed correctly.

“Approximately four out of five children thought they were chatting to a teenager when it was, in fact, an adult,” the paper reported. “Youngsters of all age groups at the school—even 17-year-olds—failed to spot the impostors. Girls were more adept than boys at guessing ages correctly, with a 22 per cent success rate compared to the boys' 16 per cent.”

Following the installation of the “anti-grooming” software, however, the results improved dramatically. According to the Independent, “it correctly worked out whether it was an adult or a child using a chatroom in 47 cases out of 50—including when an adult was pretending to be a child.”

Developed by scientists at Lancaster University, the program utilizes language analysis techniques that can determine not only a person’s age but also their gender.

"We hope to develop an automated system which can pick up on quirks of language particular to a certain age group. These language patterns can help us to expose adults who seek to groom children online,” said Awais Rashid, a professor in Lancaster University's computing department. "The software looks at a range of things, for example, the structure of sentences, the language which is being used and also things which indicate deception."

Though the software was creating with the intent to help protect minors from online predators—and despite the headline of the Independent article, which states, “Anti-grooming' software can detect paedophiles”—development researchers do not currently considered the software a pedophile detector per se, but say that it could “eventually be used to pick up on ‘stylistic footprints’ used by paedophiles, which would help police track them as they move around the internet.”

That said, the ability to determine that a supposed underage chat partner is really an adult can only be seen to be a huge advance in the area of child protection. However, being able to determine whether a supposed minor is really an adult also would have tremendous value, especially for websites that cater to adults only.

A working version of the software should be available for release by summer 2011.