i-SAFE America, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to informing children about the dangers that lurk in cyberspace, on Feb. 10 unveiled a new technology meant to dramatically enhance the security of online communications for school-age children.

i-SAFE’s Digital Credential Program provides a piece of hardware that students would carry around on a keychain and insert into the USB ports on their computers. Every device would be uploaded with a unique digital profile that electronically confirms each child’s identity and the identities of others who use the devices online.

The idea, according to i-SAFE founder and president Teri Schroeder, is to provide students with a tool that gives them more control over the relationships they cultivate online, keeping them from cavorting with pedophiles and predators in internet chat rooms and in the other traditionally dark corners of cyberspace.

“This really empowers the nation’s youth for the first time with a tool that enables them to defend themselves,” Schroeder said.

The Digital Credential, supplied by internet and telecommunications specialist VeriSign Inc., resembles an electronic token. It contains a computer chip uploaded with a digital certificate, which is used to identify the user whenever he or she goes online. The technology evolved from the concept of Public Key Infrastructure, or PKI, a series of cryptographic symbols often used by the officials in the U.S. Department of Defense and elsewhere in the intelligence-gathering community to protect sensitive information, according to George Schu, vice president of VeriSign’s public sector and a leader in the company’s partnership with i-SAFE.

Schu expects the technology will come in handy in schools, where students often go online to chat with their peers and are unwittingly duped into exchanging information with cyber predators instead. With the devices, he said, students can log into a chat room and immediately identify those people who are, in fact, students, as opposed to merely taking their word for it.

Eventually, he said, companies such as Microsoft and America Online could create restricted chat rooms and other electronic mediums where only students who possess a valid digital credential would be permitted access. The idea would be to build a safe haven in cyberspace, where school children can communicate without having to worry about being approached by one of the many cyber stalkers lurking online.

“This is entirely within the capabilities of digital credentials,” Schu said, calling the technology “pretty water-tight.”

And what if a student leaves his or her digital credential on the bus or loses it in the locker room after school? Not a problem, Schu says. The authentication devices are not replicable and are deactivated automatically the moment they are reported missing, making it virtually impossible for anyone to steal the keys and intentionally misrepresent themselves to others online.

The authentication devices also are password-protected, meaning that before students can sign on to the internet using a digital credential, they must be familiar with the individual log-in codes, which are different for every device.

i-SAFE plans to begin offering the devices to select schools as part of a pilot program beginning this summer. Depending on how well the technology is received, the company and its partners hope to make the technology available at no cost to schools across the country on an opt-in basis, Schroeder said. It then would become the schools’ responsibility to distribute the devices based on parental buy-in and encourage their use in the classroom, the computer lab, and even from home.

Of course, no technology is foolproof. For many internet safety experts, the only surefire way to keep kids safe online is to create a new culture of awareness among the nation’s computer users–both young and old.

During a panel discussion about internet safety held in conjunction with i-SAFE’s announcement, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) talked about ways in which the agency’s Community Outreach Program plans to work with i-SAFE to prevent the victimization of children by online predators.

In addition to distributing literature to parents, schools, and children across the country, the FBI also will promote safe, responsible internet use through its Adopt-A-School Program, an effort already under way in 56 field offices throughout the country. In the program, field agents and outreach personnel visit schools and participate in educational programs to help children and their parents better understand the dangers that exist online.

“Through the FBI’s partnership with i-SAFE, it is the FBI’s hope that such initiatives will reduce children’s exposure to predators by providing these educational materials to parents and children,” said the Bobi Wallace, chief of the FBI’s Outreach Unit. “The need for community outreach programs is predicated on the rapid growth of the internet, which has become a catalyst for the widespread victimization of children.”

Under its agreement with i-SAFE, representatives from FBI field offices in 12 major American cities–Birmingham, Chicago, Honolulu, Kansas City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Memphis, Mobile, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Francisco–will work to combat child pornography and sexual exploitation of children on the internet by undergoing training courses provided by i-SAFE, as well as incorporating relevant lesson plans and educational materials into the agency’s outreach efforts at the schools.

Industry experts who participated in the discussion agreed that education and outreach are paramount to creating a safer online environment for America’s youth, no matter how much new technologies eventually might help.

Tiffany Jones, director of government relations for internet security firm Symantec Corp., whose company has worked with i-SAFE to provide scholarships and training opportunities for people interested in learning more about online safety, said security and awareness are critical not only for students and children, but for everyone who uses the internet as part of their day-to-day lives.

Her concerns seem increasingly relevant today as the online community grapples with the problem of rapidly spreading computer viruses and eMail worms–many of which reportedly are created by school-age children.

“To keep children safe, we need to educate them,” Jones said. “It’s kind of like teaching [kids] to drive. You don’t just hand over the keys without giving them the proper training.”

Links:

i-SAFE America
http://www.isafe.org

VeriSign Inc.
http://www.verisign.com

Federal Bureau of Investigation
http://www.fbi.gov

Symantec Corp.
http://www.symantec.com