According to a recent survey, one in five children online have been approached by a pedophile and received unwanted sexual solicitations. At the same time, the San Diego Police Department reports that two in five abductions of children ages 15 to 17 are Internet-related. The U.S. government estimates that at any given moment there are 50,000 pedophiles prowling Internet chat rooms looking for children to befriend and meet.
And if that's not worrying enough, more than 20,000 new images of child pornography are posted on the Internet every week, and that pornography, disturbingly available and often sent unsolicited to young children, is becoming increasingly graphic and violent, according to child protection agencies.
In the March trial of a pedophile, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein told the court: "Every parent's worst nightmare is just one mouse-click away. Parents who let their children use the Internet without supervision might just as well drop them off alone on the most dangerous street in the world."
Scared? It's the natural response, as is the impossible instinct to hover constantly behind your child as he surfs. But now, an Israeli start-up has developed a new biometric sensor that promises to put your fears to rest.
I-Mature, which has offices in Los Angeles and Rishon LeZion, has developed the Age-Group Recognition (AGR) security system that can accurately recognize the age of children and adults on the Internet, allowing parents to control their child's access to restricted Web sites, and at the same time prevent pedophiles from accessing children's and teen's chat rooms.
The device, the size of a mouse, can be connected to any computer, laptop, cell phone, PDA or public computer through a USB. It uses a tiny low-frequency ultrasound technology to scan one of the user's fingers and determine his age group. The AGR then assigns the user to a specific age group and relays this encrypted information through a suite of software to a remote Web site.
The simple and harmless bone-scanning test takes just two seconds and can be carried out repeatedly. Once the user's age is defined, he will only be able to communicate with children of a similar age using i-Mature's device on their computers. Certain nonauthenticated users, such as an adult relative or a teacher, or peers without the i-Mature device, can be added to the list. Adults who use the device can surf freely, as usual.
"Put at its most simple, we protect kids against bad content and against bad people," said Matan Arazi, co-founder and CTO of the company. "While other technologies on the market might protect children from bad content, this is the only technology that can prevent a 30-year-old pedophile from communicating with a 13-year-old boy on a community Web site."
I-Mature was founded in 2002 by Shmuel Levin, the company's CEO. Levin was working on technology to help the handicapped control robotic devices, when he stumbled on to the fact that it could also be used to determine age.
"From there it was a short way to the idea of protecting children on the Internet," Arazi said. "It is one of the pivotal problems that the explosion of the Internet has unfortunately thrown up in Western society. Today, through the Internet, pedophiles have greater access to children than ever before, and their opportunities are growing rapidly as the number of children using the Net explodes."
Figures show that one of the fastest areas of growth on the Net today is among 2- to 7-year-olds. Reports also reveal that children are not prepared for the risks they might face on the Web. In a 2003 survey in Poland, UNICEF discovered that 64 percent of the 9,000 or so children interviewed had given a stranger they met on the net their telephone number, and 42 percent had given out their home address. One quarter of these children, ages 12 to 17, had met a stranger they had befriended online, while 56 percent had been induced to take part in unwanted sexual conversations. A full 80 percent of the children reported having inadvertently seen pornographic materials.
The six-man company, which is self-funded to the tune of several million dollars, completed development of the AGR technology last year and has begun selling the device for between $25 and $30.
"Development of the technology for this device is by no means trivial. Right now we are the only ones in the world to do it," Arazi said.
"This is the first time that any kind of Internet action can be controlled directly by a user's age," he added. "Some technologies use a nondirect system such as a credit card or a Social Security number, but these measurements can be faked. No one knows for sure who it is sitting in front of a computer with a credit card, and no one knows if the security number a person is using belongs to them, or to their grown-up brother, or perhaps was even purchased on the Internet. With us, instead of believing that someone's eyes are brown, we are like a direct camera linked to the eyes, which determines conclusively that the eyes are brown."
In addition, the AGR technology does not identify the individual in any way, offering 100 percent privacy protection. "There is no database of users, and no potential for compromise," Arazi said. "When you're dealing with children this is extremely important."
"This is a great way of leveraging the power of biometrics in a simple, appropriate manner that will give confidence to parents, content providers and all Internet users," said Howard Schmidt, former cybersecurity adviser to the White House, in a company statement. "Validating the identities of Internet users is never more important than when it applies to our children."
I-Mature is in negotiations with Internet service providers and content providers in the United States and Israel, and has also seen interest in the device from Europe. The AGR technology will become widely available in the third quarter of this year and can be either purchased off the shelf or as a value-added service from an ISP and content provider. The company has also developed an application suitable for libraries, schools and other public access points. The technology has been patented all over the world.
In February, i-Mature announced a joint research and marketing collaboration with United States security giant RSA Security. The goal of the agreement is to bring RSA Security's cryptographic expertise into the security architecture of i-Mature's AGR technology, and to explore the integration of that technology with user authentication systems. The two companies first began working together over a year ago.
I-Mature has generated a great deal of interest from many different organizations. The Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee included the company on its Web site as a worthwhile solution for protecting children online, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently invited the company to Washington to present the technology to legislators and policy makers.
"We have been contacted by a huge variety of organizations from all over the world -- governments, advocacy institutions, child protection agencies, and commercial entities willing to assist us in the distribution and support of these devices," says Arazi. "We feel we are on the point of takeoff."
With marketing about to begin, i-Mature is now looking for financing of $3 million to $4 million from a suitable, value-added investor. While this will effectively be the company's first round of financing, Arazi stresses that the sum will be enough to take the company well beyond final sales and help it set up the right industry and distribution channels worldwide.
The company is also exploring new applications for its technology, including DVDs, cable and satellite TV, and Internet gaming. "We are examining every market where there is a need to control content depending on age," Arazi said.
"This is very significant development," he added. "It doesn't seem too high a price to pay to protect your children."