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Patrolling the “Last Frontier”

Attorney General Convenes Internet Sex Crimes Task Force in Alexandria.

>“Hi baby how r u?”

The Yahoo Messenger online chat program has just beeped, and a new window has popped up on the computer screen. Someone has just struck up a conversation with summerdavis.

“what r u doing right now?” the newcomer asks, then gets to the point. “what part of va are u from?”

The chatter does not know that summerdavis is the screen name Virginia State Police special agent Jason Trent has chosen for this particular online fishing expedition. Nor does the person know that all of summerdavis’s chat conversations (within seconds of going online, summerdavis has been invited to engage in multiple, very similar conversations) are being projected onto screens throughout a conference room at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 699 Prince Street.

More than fifty people are watching Trent masquerade as a fourteen-year old girl from Northern Virginia. The anonymous names that pop onto her screen waste little time with formalities before asking for her age and where she lives.

“U have been invited to view Radial Thrust’s webcam,” one Yahoo message informs Trent. He declines.

Representatives from Yahoo were watching the presentation on July 14. They sat beside internet other companies including America Online, Google and Myspace.com as well as law enforcement officers, lawyers, teachers, elected officials, non-profit employees and others to watch this and other demonstrations by organizations dedicated to discovering the identities of individuals whose interest in the vast online community of young Americans may cross into the terrain of sexual predation. After a morning of presentations, participants broke into two discussion groups to begin a collaborative process of figuring out how to keep children safe online.

STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL Robert McDonnell announced the formation of the Attorney General’s Youth Internet Safety Task Force last month. On July 14, the first of five proposed conferences was held at the NCMEC. After the final meeting in December, McDonnell said he expects the commission to have generated a list of recommendations to present to the state legislature before it reconvenes next year.

In April, Governor Timothy Kaine signed legislation proposed by McDonnell that raised the mandatory sentence for rape and sodomy of a child under 13 from five years in prison to at least 25 years for a first offense. It also required mandatory three-year supervision, including GPS tracking, for those convicted of serious sexual crimes. The legislation also strengthened the online sexual offender registry.

But new challenges to keeping children safe from sexual predators are constantly being created by the growing ubiquity of internet use among children and teenagers and the ease with which utter strangers can access intimate details, including pictures, which are often posted online, on sites like myspace.com, by the youth themselves.

And although police officers like Trent are dedicated to stopping online crimes, the vast amounts of data they must sift through makes it impossible for law enforcement to monitor the millions of corners of the online world. According to the NCMEC, about one in five children received a sexual solicitation or approach in the last year. About one quarter of those children told a parent about it.

“This is something the police can’t do alone,” said Ernie Allen, president of the NCMEC. The NCMEC was founded in 1984 to fight child abduction and sexual exploitation.

Michelle Collins, director of the NCMEC’s Exploited Child Unit, described to the task force the work of its online sleuths, who comb the internet for child pornography, trying to identify the children involved and looking for the background details that might give away the location of the crime. Collins said they review 100,000 images and videos of child pornography, and find about seven new victims, each week.

Sexual predators are not only passively broadcasting child abuse into people’s homes. They are actively reaching in. Collins said the NCMEC receives 250 to 300 reports a week of a child being enticed online.

The sleuths and watchdogs in the upper stories of the NCMEC building are finding trends in the pornographic imagery. “[Victims] are getting younger,” said Collins. “It is getting worse. They are getting more violent.”

“It’s alarming,” said Del. Brian Moran (D-46), who attended the task force meeting. “As a father of two young children this is particularly important to me.” He said more legislation was necessary to confront the problem, and he expected the details of that legislation to emerge from the task force. “We need to hear from the experts,” he said. “This is where it needs to originate.”

THE VAST and ever-evolving World Wide Web is even more difficult to police than was the Wild West one hundred years ago.

“The internet is really the last frontier for sexual predators,” McDonnell said, explaining his emphasis on the issue. McDonnell said he created the task force because how to keep the internet safe for its most vulnerable users is “not something lawyers and public safety people can sit around and figure out … We’ve got all the right stakeholders and experts at the table.”

McDonnell added that Virginia, which has staked much of its economy on computer and information technology, has a leading role to play in the effort to stymie sexual predators. “The internet is uniquely important to Virginia,” McDonnell said. “If we are going to keep the internet a great vehicle for information exchange and commerce, we’ve got to keep it a safe place to use … We’ve got to do a better job.”