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Protecting Children on the Electronic Frontier A Law Enforcement Challenge.

Parents serving in the U.S. military would never leave their children alone in a strange neighborhood. They would not allow them to stroll through an adult bookstore, let them wander aimlessly on a busy street, or permit them to have secret meetings with strangers. In the past, they could count on sentries at the entrances to their assigned bases to provide a barrier to exclude those not suitable for access. Today, however, these parents face a risk to their children lurking right in their own homes--the Internet. This modern technology allows those who target children to bypass the gates and guards and enter homes to interact with unsuspecting youngsters via their computers.

In the ongoing effort to keep up with technology and the new threats posed by a potentially international criminal element, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) [1] Computer Investigations and Operations Department prepared and deployed a compact disk in September 1999 containing two programs designed to prevent and deter computer crime. The first focuses on the on-line safety concerns of Department of the Navy personnel and families living outside the United States, while the second educates Navy and Marine Corps leaders about the proliferation of child pornography on computer networks.

Both programs fall under the NCIS computer crime prevention program, which has as its motto "a bit of prevention is worth a gigabyte of cure." [2]


Safekids is a computer crime prevention initiative specifically designed to provide on-line safety information to Navy and Marine Corps children and families living overseas who may not understand the issues, pitfalls, and dangers associated with the Internet. While military families living overseas face many challenges, NCIS wants to ensure that online activity need not result in an added or unknown danger for these families. To that end, Safekids provides information for children in the 4th through 9th grades and suitable, related information for parents.

With over 110,000 U.S. dependent students in more than 238 Department of Defense schools in 15 locations around the world, providing support proves a logistical challenge. Key to meeting this challenge is an e-mail account established at NCIS Headquarters in Washington, DC. NCIS encourages adults and children who have questions or who receive disturbing online messages to send an e-mail to NCIS special agents monitoring the account evaluate and then forward these e-mails to the closest NCIS field element for response directly to the senders. NCIS recognizes that not all messages will contain criminal information. However, in cases requiring attention, agents will forward the e-mail to the appropriate response element in the overseas military community for resolution or intervention by a family advocacy representative, the military chaplain, or other appropriate local agency. NCIS stresses that the e-mail account is for law enforcement assistance and referral only and provides no techn ical support.

The Safekids compact disk contains several programs aimed at children and their parents. The presentations include an introduction, a section for children, a segment on what parents should look for, and a resource component that gives parents some tools to protect their children.

Introduction to Safekids

A short introduction includes the theory, target, and point of the effort and operates on two main premises. First, children are frequently the reason that families adopt new technology, and because of the reliance on technology in the military, Navy and Marine Corps children may experience more exposure than mainstream American youngsters. Second, because of deployment schedules, military families living outside the United States may become single-parent based more often, and the "electronic babysitter" may present yet another challenge to an unsuspecting parent becoming acclimated to a new culture. Thus, Safekids acts as an on-line recourse for military families--even though a Navy or Marine Corps family lives outside the United States, they can remain in touch with law enforcement resources.

For Kids Only

An in-school presentation directed toward children in the 4th to 9th grades, For Kids Only discusses ethics, personal responsibility, privacy, and other subjects that youngsters need to know when using the Internet, including inappropriate types of communications and school violence. The program provides scenarios of what children should do if problems arise as well as resources and points of contact. Safekids developers coordinated information points and instructional techniques with professional educators and included a variety of discussion topics.

* Privacy--what kinds of information should children keep private? Children encounter the issue of privacy and understand that they should talk to their parents before supplying personal information, sending photos, or agreeing to meet any online contacts.

* Pitfalls--how they can get themselves in, and out of, trouble on-line. Youngsters learn that exploring the Internet can be just as fun (or dangerous) as exploring a new land.

* Personal Web page considerations--what and what not to include. Children discover that if they do not want everyone in the world knowing something about them, they should not put it on the Internet.

* Facts or folklore--even though criminals use the Internet, youngsters find out that they can still "surf." They also learn that just because something is on the Internet, it may not be true.

Information for Parents

This presentation for parents, caregivers, and other responsible adults addresses what online concerns they should have, including warning signs, such as unusual vocabulary or activity associated with the computer; fundamentals of chat rooms, software piracy, virus prevention, and the illegality of child pornography and how offenders use it against children; violence online, such as hate crimes and threatening communications; and personal privacy concerns, such as the development of personal Web pages. In addition, the parent's presentation provides some proactive tips to prevent unpleasant events from happening, including controlling Internet access in their homes and ensuring that their children know their rules for communicating in chat rooms, and lists additional on-line resources.

Besides providing information on how to contact law enforcement, Safekids educates parents, teachers, and children on how to help law enforcement if they become aware of a suspicious situation. For example, an individual solicits a personal meeting with a child while communicating in a chat room. If the solicitation occurs in a manner to avoid the parent's knowledge or the meeting is imminent, they should contact their local NCIS office, military authorities, or local police immediately. On the other hand, if no immediate danger or other serious safety issue exists, but a child or parent has a question or concern about an online communication, they should forward it to the Safekids account, ensuring that they include their location and how best to contact them directly. NCIS also advises them, while waiting, not to delete anything from the computer and to save disks, tapes, and any related media.

Finally, the parent's version includes a discussion about survey-type questionnaires proliferating across the Internet. These surveys ask, in some instances, dozens of very personal questions of children, which are then returned or forwarded to others. These surveys provide a chilling insight into the scope of vulnerability and target selection now available to sexual predators playing off the trusting nature of innocents.

Parents' Posse

The Posse is designed as an aid to law enforcement. In the days of the Wild West, American lawmen frequently formed a posse, made up of willing, capable volunteers, to help pursue desperados. In the computer age, law enforcement still needs assistance from willing, capable citizens. In some respects, the best line of defense may start at home.

This aspect of the program, created at the recommendation of the Department of Defense schools, provides parents, often less computer savvy than their children, with some of the tools they need to protect their families. The Posse demonstrates--

* how to find and look at history files;

* how to restrict World Wide Web access;

* the fundamentals of Internet browsers;

* the basics of chat rooms and messaging software; and

* how to copy, move, and delete files.

The Posse provides basic information and advises parents that other sources of information exist on their computers. It recommends that through some cursory review, parents may decrease the chances that their children will become victims. Parents also learn that while some information on the Internet may appear inappropriate, simple, reasonable explanations may exist that justify its presence, and they should explore further before jumping to any conclusions.

Moreover, the presentation provides some general suggestions for prospective Posse members, including knowing the software on their computers, asking their children to show them what it does and how it does it, and checking for viruses when downloading from the Internet. It cautions parents that if they do not fully understand what they are doing in the subdirectories or areas referred to, they should not delete, rename, or otherwise change any file or configuration setting on their computers. Obviously, parents cannot become computer experts overnight, but by reducing some of the intimidation factor, parents can learn how to get involved. For most military families, the days of claiming to be computer illiterate are nearly over. The Posse can show parents that while the online threats have become broader, the collective ability to meet them has increased substantially.

On the Web

NCIS has posted abbreviated versions of the Safekids presentations on its Web site, Also available on-line is a text file to produce a handout designed for parents and educators. It summarizes the Safekids initiative, defines common computer terms, identifies some resources for parents, and provides other information, such as an insert discussing the Parents' Posse. NCIS has included a shareware search utility, which will scan a hard disk for images and display them on the screen, and easy-to-follow downloading instructions.


During the past several years, NOIS has noted an increase in cases involving the possession of child pornography. Other criminal issues, ranging from spouse and child abuse to drug possession, computer intrusion, and sexual assault, frequently accompany these matters. As NCIS has pursued these cases, it has determined that many military personnel view the possession of this type of material as nothing serious. Many leaders seem unaware that these offenses are prosecutable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as well as federal law, and that federal sentencing guidelines call for substantial confinement for possession, or other related areas, of child pornography.

To raise awareness of this issue and combat its spread, NCIS, in close cooperation with the Armed Forces Center for Child Protection and Naval District Washington Trial Service Office, has prepared a companion to the Safekids presentation, Child Pornography: It's Not Just Dirty Pictures. This presentation provides information on the problem; the current environment; applicable definitions; types of child molesters, child pornography, and collectors; uses of child pornography; victim-related information; and legal recourse.

While the presentation contains a significant amount of information compiled from a variety of sources, it has no images depicting the sexual exploitation of children. It concludes with three recommended actions/goals: educate command personnel, coordinate with law enforcement when suspicions arise, and adjudicate. The presentation stresses that child pornography constitutes more than an issue of dirty pictures; those who purvey this material represent worthy targets for law enforcement and the judicial process.


Although the Safekids program has existed for only a year, recipients of the training have praised the effort. So far, NCIS has implemented the program in Japan, Italy, and Hawaii, with excellent results, and will continue to implement it in other areas around the world.

NCIS has shared the program with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Army Criminal Investigation Division for review and evaluation. NCIS also has provided it to the Australian Federal Police, Maryland State Police, and local law enforcement agencies and will continue to support requests for the program. [3]


The Internet, with all of its benefits, presents new dangers to families everywhere. However, military families may prove more vulnerable. With a spouse deployed for extended periods of time, the remaining parent faces many challenges, including adapting to new cultures if based abroad and attempting to keep the home environment as normal as possible. Add to these difficulties a hidden danger in the technology thought to provide some degree of comfort, and military families can become easy targets for Internet predators.

The Computer Investigations and Operations Department of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service developed a tool to help Navy and Marine Corps families deal with the potential risks associated with using the Internet. NCIS created the Safekids program to help these families understand this new technology and reduce their likelihood of falling victim to online dangers. Through such efforts, not only military families but many others can learn ways of safeguarding their loved ones, particularly their children, from the unscrupulous and sometimes deadly individuals who peruse the Internet for criminal purposes.

A former Buffalo, New York, police officer, Special Agent Parsons now serves with the Computer Investigations and Operations Department of the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Washington, DC.


(1.) A worldwide federal law enforcement organization, NCIS protects and serves the members of the Navy and Marine Corps and their families. NCIS currently has approximately 1,600 employees in over 150 locations around the globe, including aboard ships.

(2.) Matt Parsons, "crime Prevention and the Electronic Frontier," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1998, 7-10.

(3.) To obtain further information about the program, system requirements, and request procedures, agencies should contact NCIS Headquarters, computer Investigations and Operations Division, 716 Sicard Street, SE, Suite 2000, Washington, DC 20388, or access the NCIS Internet site at

Dangers on the Electronic Frontier

Child pornography: Predators frequently use images depicting the sexual exploitation of children in an attempt to lure children into participating in this type of activity.

Unauthorized disclosure: While the capability exists to share information quickly, users must remember that e-mail is not a secure means of communication.

Harassment/stalking: The Internet provides access to many people, and many sites provide details about these individuals. Receiving a distressing message from an unknown sender can prove traumatic, especially for children.

Hate crimes and violence: The Internet provides the opportunity for everyone who has a personal opinion, regardless of content, to spread their message. Recent tragic events in the United States illustrate how disturbed individuals can use this medium to post their philosophy and to communicate with those who agree by linking them together through e-mail, chat rooms, or hyperlink.
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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Previous Article:The Leadership Challenge.
Next Article:A Look Back.

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