An Israeli company called i-Mature Inc. believes it has created a new way to protect children from online predators and internet content deemed harmful to minors: a biometric test that reportedly can peg a computer user’s age within a certain age range.

i-Mature has teamed up with Massachusetts-based RSA Security Inc., a provider of internet security products, to develop a solution that uses i-Mature’s Age Group Recognition (AGR) technology to help keep kids safe online. The companies hope to release a model of the AGR test for a retail price of about $25 per unit sometime next year.

Through studying human anatomy, i-Mature founder and CEO Shmuel Levin said he and his team discovered they could scan the structure of a bone in the middle finger for properties that determine age.

At birth, the proximal phalanx bone in the human hand is composed partially of cartilage. The cartilage growth plate hardens, or ossifies, into solid bone as the body develops.

AGR technology uses low-frequency ultrasound to measure different elements of that bone in a person’s middle finger. The i-Mature AGR device, which attaches to a computer through a USB port, generates an image of the bone based on data collected by ultrasound echoes through the finger. The computer then determines the user’s age group based on the size and condition of the cartilage still present in the finger as it is scanned.

The age groups recognized by the technology are 12 and under, 13 to 17, and 18 or older.

One selling point of the AGR technology is that it does not store identifying data about the subject of the scan. “Our device performs an online, real-time, one-time age group recognition check and determines automatically whether access will be granted to the user or not,” Levin said.

This means that a child’s security is not compromised in ways that other age-identifying programs might be vulnerable to, because there is no evidence of the user’s identity–just a scan that determines the age of the user, then discards the data.

“This is one of the biggest advantages we have over … other age verification solutions, like i-SAFE”–a nonprofit organization that provides individualized security codes that might be traced back to individual users (see “‘Digital credentials’ aim to keep kids safer online“)–or any other biometric authentication systems,” said Levin.

“In this concept, the user’s privacy cannot be compromised in any form,” he said.

According to Burt Kaliski, vice president of research and chief scientist at RSA Laboratories, his company is researching i-Mature’s technology for use with other security technologies that could be employed to screen for age before giving users access to certain web sites.

Porn sites are an obvious example. Educators, librarians, and parents hypothetically could install the AGR hardware to prevent student access to adult web sites. Another possible application of the technology would be for registered sex offenders: law-enforcement officials could install the device on the home computers of sex offenders to prevent them from accessing child-only web sites and chat rooms.

But the technology is by no means foolproof, and many questions will need to be answered before it can be implemented on a wide scale.

Herb Lin, senior scientist at the National Research Institute, notes that his own child has a bone deficiency that gives her the skeletal structure of an eight-year-old, though she is actually 10. He said any child who is unusually large or small could trip up the scanner.

So what if the user is an adult authorized to view materials considered unsuitable for children under 18, but has the same bone deficiency and is considered 16 by the AGR scanner? How do you protect the First Amendment rights of a user who is legally permitted to view such materials? Or, what if the computer user is handicapped or is missing the required digit?

“There’s this intersection of technology and policy issues that I think needs working out. There should be provisions for those kinds of situations,” said Kalinski. “In that case, you build in an exception mechanism.”

Levin said government officials reacted positively to demonstrations of i-Mature’s bone-scanning technology at the 2005 Congressional Internet Caucus.

Danielle Yates, policy and media associate for GetNetWise/Internet Education Foundation, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the Congressional Internet Caucus, said she was first introduced to the AGR scanner at the 2005 meeting.

“I found the product to be intriguing,” Yates said. “[I] am pleased to see that companies are looking at alternative means of parental empowerment tools.”

The GetNetWise coalition provides resources to help internet users make informed decisions about children’s use of the web.

Links:

i-Mature
http://www.i-mature.net

RSA Security Inc.
http://www.rsasecurity.com

GetNetWise/Internet Education Foundation
http://www.getnetwise.org