Experts Talk About Protecting Our Kids from Online Predators
On New Year's Day in 2002, Alicia Kozakiewicz was lured away from her family home by Scott Tyree, a man who had corresponded with the 13-year-old girl for a year in a Yahoo chat room. Over the course of several days, Kozakiewicz was held captive and assaulted by Tyree, who broadcast the attack over live streaming video. She was rescued by the FBI after an anonymous tip led agents to Tyree's Virginia home.
On Thursday, Kozakiewicz (pictured above) brought her dramatic story to the 2015 RSA Security Conference in San Francisco, where she joined several other speakers for a panel entitled "Into the Woods: Protecting Our Youth from the Wolves of Cyberspace." She currently heads The Alicia Project, an advocacy group aimed at educating the public about sexual exploitation, online predators, and abduction.
"In order to keep up with my friendships, I got a screen name and began talking to my friends from school, who introduced me to their friends, and their friends, and their friends, until I was really in a realm of people I didn't know all that well, but we felt very connected because it could be traced back to that one person," Kozakiewicz told the audience.
The session was moderated by Sandra Toms, Vice President at RSA and Curator of the RSA Conference. Joining Kozakiewicz on stage was Sharon Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician who evaluates and treats children who have been victims of various types of abuse; Michael Osborn, Chief of the Violent Crimes Against Children Unit for the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Lance Spitzner, Training Director for SANS Securing The Human.
The overwhelming consensus among the panelists is that effective communication by parents and other trusted adults with children about their online activities is crucial to preventing potential problems. Cooper also emphasized the fact that children typically do not have the emotional maturity necessary to cope with feelings of shame or guilt if naked photos of them wind up online, which makes them vulnerable to manipulation or extortion by predators.
Two Major Threats
The FBI has seen two significant trends in this area, Osborn said. The first is the increased use of remote wiping technology by criminals in an attempt to impede law enforcement investigations. In some instances, that is combined with increasingly sophisticated encryption technology.
The second disturbing development is the growth in sextortion cases, in which predators obtain nude photos of potential victims and then use those photos to extort more explicit photos or sexual contact. In some instances, victims supply the photos that are used for sextortion when they share nude photos of themselves, Osborn said. In other cases, the predators obtain the photos using a variety of techniques, including malware, social engineering (persuading or duping victims into sharing photos), or by lurking in chat rooms to strike up conversations with impressionable teens and tweens like Kozakiewicz.
"Grooming is a term we might hear a lot these days, but it's so, so simple," Kozakiewicz said. "All it is, is being a child's friend. And that's what he did to me. He made believe that he was my friend. And he made me think things and feel things about myself that kids don't feel every single day of their lives. He made me feel beautiful and important and special and unique. And told me what I wanted to hear versus what I needed to hear."