Don Spurlin was listening to a seminar on computer software designed to protect children from sexual predators. He wondered, why not use it to protect predators from their own impulses?

The software could be added to the computers of sex offenders who are on probation, he thought, and used to alert authorities to illicit activities.

Spurlin, a Sangamon County, Ill., probation officer with a caseload full of sex offenders, got on the phone to the maker of Cyber Sentinel, an internet filtering and monitoring program. Security Software Systems had never considered using the software for law enforcement, but it welcomed the idea.

Soon the software was being tested, and it has worked so well that the county plans to require the software for offenders in the future.

“We’re protecting children by preventing the offenders that we know about from being able to do the things they’d like to do,” Spurlin said.

Four Sangamon County sex offenders have Cyber Sentinel on their computers. If they go to a prohibited web site, use sexually explicit language, or even use phrases common to online predators, Spurlin gets an eMail letting him know that probation conditions may have been violated.

Even the probationers don’t seem to mind.

“At first, I thought that this is taking everything away from my privacy,” said Jim McIntire, 33, of Springfield, who’s been on probation for six years for criminal sexual abuse.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized they’ve got a tight rein on me. With this, at least they know I’m on the computer and I’m not out doing something different.”

Cyber Sentinel was developed to record chat room conversations, instant messages, eMails, and images that are sexually explicit, so that parents can see what their children are doing online, said Dan Jude, president of Security Software Systems in Sugar Grove, Ill.

To alert parents to predators who might be contacting their children online, Jude said, Cyber Sentinel relies on a library of offensive and explicit words developed with law enforcement agencies.

It even includes phrases commonly used by offenders, such as “Do your parents use this computer?” or “Do you like older men?” and can be customized with personal information such as the child’s school name, phone number, and address.

Some probation offices across the country are using similar programs, said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Parole and Probation Association. They have obvious benefits but must not replace human contact, he said.

“If you’re too reliant on any technology, the facts may hide the truth,” Wicklund said.

Authorities can decide which words or phrases generate an eMail alert. “If it’s just the ‘F’ word, the probation officer can decide whether to disable a word out of the library,” Jude said.

That’s what happened with McIntire, who is in counseling and wants to see the software used widely to stop others from sexual crimes.

His computer activity produced nearly 100 eMails in just one week. It turned out just to be offensive language in a chat room McIntire was using when he played online card games. Spurlin removed some of the words from McIntire’s Sentinel library.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which recognizes that people on probation have fewer rights than other citizens, nonetheless wants to make sure authorities don’t go overboard with the software.

“It’s reasonable for people to want to read articles and even look at pictures that have references to sexuality that don’t raise concerns about future sex offenses,” ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf said.

Security Software gave Sangamon County 100 copies of the $35 product. Officials had to get permission to install the software on the machines of the four using it.

Of the county’s 70 or so sex offenders on probation, only about a dozen have computers. Adult Probation Director Michael Torchia said others are being asked if they’ll also accept Cyber Sentinel.

Future sex offenders on probation who have computers will have no choice. Torchia has gotten judicial approval to change the probation code to require the software.

Related links:
Security Software Systems

American Parole and Probation Association

American Civil Liberties Union