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.

“To keep children safe, we need to better educate them,” said Tiffany Jones, director of government relations for internet security firm Symantec Corp. “It’s kind of like teaching [kids] to drive. You don’t just hand over the keys without giving them the proper training.”

See these related links:

i-SAFE America

VeriSign Inc.