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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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August032006

A Virtual ID Card for Kids: Will It Keep Them Safe?

One of the most common questions I get from parents and teachers alike is how do you verify that the person a child is talking to online is who they say they are? A Scottish parent wondered the same thing about his daughter’s online friends, so he invented a service called NetIDme, which provides kids with a verifiable online identity.

netidme.jpgAlex Hewitt of Glasgow was surprised how many friends his daughter had on her instant messaging buddy list - 150 people to be exact - and was disturbed when he was able to verify the identities of 50 of them. The other 100 were online aliases that couldn’t be traced easily, leaving him wondering if the people behind these aliases were kids his daughter’s age or not.

“The internet is a great resource for children, but I was worried that my daughter was at risk to online predators and people who were not who they said they were,” he told the UK’s Evening Times newspaper. “People want to feel safe online and know the people they are talking to are who they say they are.”

So after some trial and error, he developed a new service called NetIDme. Launched in four countries this past week, including the US, NetIDme is a virtual ID card for kids, costing around $19 a year. The idea behind the card is fairly straightforward, but it requires a lengthy application process. Parents order a NetIDme card for a child using a credit card, and they receive an application via postal mail. After filling out the paperwork, it must be verified by an educational professional who knows the child, such as a teacher or school administrator. At this point, the application is sent back to NetIDme, which then conducts a background check. To protect against online predators foiling the system, NetIDme won’t reveal the exact process by which they perform the ID check. “In simple terms, verification is similar to that when applying
for a passport,” company representative Julie McHenery explained to me via email.

Once the process is complete, the family will receive the child’s virtual ID card, which looks something like a credit card except that it contains basic information about them, including their first name, age, gender and general location. Each card features a public code number, which is paired with a secret password.

After the child has received their virtual card, they’ll then be able to use it when going online, logging in with the card’s ID number and the secret password. For example, if the parents have installed software like ChatShield, it will automatically integrate their NetIDme number with their instant messenger account. Once installed, the child will only be able to chat with other NetIDme users. If an adult tries to contact the child, they won’t be able to send them an instant message, because they lack a NetIDme card.

Because of the nature of the service, a child’s potential circle of friends is inherently limited to those others kids whose parents have also subscribed to the service. So far it’s been tested widely in the UK, but hasn’t made much of a dent in the US market. That may change if NetIDme forges partnerships with any of the major online social networking sites or blogs that cater to young people. When I asked Julie McHenery if these partnerships were in the works, she said they were “currently in discussions with a number of organizations,” but wouldn’t elaborate.

NetIDMe inventor Alex Hewitt is confident that the service will make a positive impact. “Our system will help children protect themselves online while still having the freedom to use the Internet,” he told the Evening Times. “NetIDme will substantially reduce the risk of young people being targeted by internet predators. It removes the anonymity of the Internet and prevents predators from masquerading as kids to gain their trust.”

I’m intrigued the idea, but not totally sold on it yet. While the process they set up to verify a child before given them a card is elaborate, I’m not convinced it’s foolproof. For example, a person, theoretically, could apply for a card ostensibly for their child, but use it themselves. So just because the card had been issued in a kid’s name doesn’t mean it can’t be used by someone else who knows the password associated with the card. I also fear there could end up being a black market in trading and selling verified cards, not unlike the black market in passports. Sadly, online predators are often very well organized, as was seen two years ago in the horrifying series of abuse cases in Belgium. Hopefully, some of the proprietary verification methods used by NetIDMe might make this scenario less likely, but it’s hard to know for sure. It would be interesting to see if any law enforcement agencies have evaluated their system.

What do you think? Are services like NetIDMe a viable way of protecting kids, or are they just window dressing that provide a false sense of security? -andy

Filed under : Safety

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