Adam Hildreth is 22, and already a multi-millionaire. Sitting at his desk in Leeds, Hildreth is full of energy. For the last eight years, he has been working almost round the clock, mainly chained to a computer. But Hildreth is an entrepreneur with a difference. His passion, over and above making money, is child protection, and he believes he has invented a way to detect adult men attempting to abuse children via chatrooms and social networking sites.
Having set up Dubit – a successful website aimed at teenagers – from his bedroom when he was 14, Hildreth left school two years later to run the company full time. People who knew Hildreth at school assumed he would make lots of money, as he was known to be bright and seemed to understand how the business worked. What they did not predict was that Hildreth would use his business skills and revenue to become a child protection expert.
Last year, Hildreth sold his share in Dubit and set up Crisp Thinking, a UK-based online child protection company, which has developed the Anti-Grooming Engine (AGE). He claims the product is 99.9% effective in identifying adults online with sexual motivation.
Cyber abuse is a serious and growing problem. A recent NSPCC survey found that more than 50% of young people have suffered an “unwanted experience” – including sexual abuse and bullying – when using social networking sites. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) Centre, the government law enforcement agency devoted to online child protection, says it receives up to 500 incident reports a month, and around half are linked to grooming. It estimates that someone in four young people arranges to meet somebody in the real world who they originally met online, compared with around one in 12 children four years ago.
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Hildreth explains how the AGE software works: “It is not about looking out for keywords, such as sex or virgin. Teenagers often talk to each other about sex. It is more about how a relationship develops between adult groomer and child.” There are more than 200 factors on the software “fingerprint” that can be examined to ascertain whether the suspect is grooming a young person online. “This is not like the other programs aimed at detecting groomers,” Hildreth says. “They claim to work, but they are largely ineffective.”
The software is designed to look out for conversation patterns, typing speed, use of grammar and punctuation, and any aggressive or bullying language. Using extracts of online conversations between young people as examples of “good” data, it is fed into the computer and compared with conversation gathered from that of suspected groomers. “The computer learns how to tell the difference, through the subtlest of examples,” Hildreth says.
Unhappy at school – “It was never my thing; I was quite disruptive” – Hildreth heard about New Enterprise, aimed at A-level students interested in setting up in business. He persuaded it to support him to set up a dotcom company, despite his age, and worked on software from his bedroom in the evenings and weekends. “My parents were good about it,” he says. “They allowed me to do my own thing.”
Did he find the idea of going into business daunting at such a young age, and without any formal qualifications? “No, business always seemed very simple to me,” says Hildreth, without arrogance. “I figured you buy a product for whatever cost and sell it on for a bit more.”
During the running of Dubit, Hildreth and colleagues noticed that adult male “groomers” were infiltrating the site, trying to lure the young people online either to meet with them or to take part in pornographic messaging. Hildreth says: “We paid moderators to seek them out, and found loads of them in chatrooms.”
As soon as they were blocked from chatrooms, however, many moved on to the non-moderated chat facilities of web portals, so Hildreth became determined to develop a tool to identify groomers and eliminate them from cyberspace. “We have 99.9% spam protection and virus protection, but no one was doing anything to stop online child abuse. I understand how groomers work, and the tactics they use, so I sat down with experts to develop AGE – and Crisp was born.”
Crisp personnel are in regular contact with law enforcers here and in the US, both to share information about the latest tactic of online abusers and to pass on details of suspects. Hildreth says: “Certain websites now have become wise to the fact that we are monitoring them, and have blocked us from entering, and some abusers have set up their own social networking sites aimed at teenagers.” Groomers share tactics among themselves, according to Hildreth, who adds: “We need to make sure we remain one step ahead of them.”
So far, 10,000 licences for AGE have been distributed free to parents concerned about child safety. Once downloaded on the computer, if the software identifies a possible “grooming” conversation online a warning message appears on the screen advising the young person that he or she is involved in a potentially “dangerous” conversation. The software has the ability at the same time to alert the parent, either via email or text message, that a potential grooming incident has taken place.
Crisp says it will make its profit from the partners who distribute it, such as broadband providers. Negotiations are ongoing with leading internet service providers, with the intention that they will include the software in their start-up packages for customers. A spokesman for BT says: ” We have been having talks with Crisp Thinking and we may have some future discussions with them.” BT has 4 million UK broadband customers who already have access to an internet filter, which automatically blocks images classified as illegal by the Internet Watch Foundation.
Crisp gives a significant amount of money to child protection charities, such as BeatBullying, and Hildreth is keen to encourage others in the private sector to help tackle the problem. “Children don’t want their parents monitoring and interfering in their online activities,” says Emma-Jane Cross, chief executive of BeatBullying. “The AGE software is the solution – a good example of the industry taking responsibility for policing online interactions, without young people feeling unfairly scrutinised.”
Catching exploiters may be Hildreth’s prime motivation in setting up Crisp, but it certainly has not harmed him financially. He was reportedly worth £2m in the 2004 UK top 20 richest teens list. Last year, he was named the Confederation of British Industry Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
But there is no doubt that for Hildreth child protection comes first. “I can’t stand the people who do [grooming],” he says. “I think: ‘You bastards, I want to get you.’ I want to put them behind bars with the help of law enforcement.”
Online abusers target the vulnerable and naive and tap into any insecurity the child might have. If the young person is being bullied at school, for example, the groomer will seek to find out. “They often turn that young person against their parents, and even their other friends,” Hildreth says. “Once they have done that, they will say something like, ‘I am 35 – does that matter?’ before arranging to meet the child.”
Since AGE was launched, Crisp has worked with child protection agencies to report suspicious behaviour online. “We only pass on the suspect segments of the conversation,” Hildreth explains. “This is not about parents being alerted to all of their child’s online activities.” And feedback from parents has been “fantastic”, he says.
Aside from the groomers, does Crisp and its product have any critics? “The geeks of the world who think the internet should be like the Wild West”, says Hildreth, admitting that he “regularly comes to blows with them”.
Although he says he does not feel particularly self-conscious about being so rich and successful at such a young age, he is far happier telling people what he does since setting up Crisp. “It can sound a bit pompous, telling people I am in business. What is fantastic is that now I can just say: ‘We catch groomers.'”
John Carr, a government adviser on internet safety for children, and chair of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition for Internet Safety welcomes the AGE software. But he is cautious about how effective it will be in finding online groomers. He says: “I think it’s a question of ‘watch this space’. There is nothing like this software around at the moment, but there is a good deal of scepticism around the claims being made about it. Groomers are subtle and clever manipulators and it’s hard to imagine a package of software that will be able to keep up with them.”
Carr points out that the concept of software that is able to identify “risk phrases” is not new – similar packages are used to identify people involved in insider trading. But he says: “What is new about this AGE software is its focus on child protection and, within that, the grooming element. The software is meant to be context sensitive and, for it to work, it has to build up a great deal of knowledge about the linguistics and the cultural patterns of the people using it. I welcome it, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”
The Ceop centre also welcomes any moves by software developers and the internet industry to protect children online. But it maintains that software that potentially identifies groomers can only ever be part of the solution. A spokeswoman says: “It should be recognised that no single approach is failsafe in protecting children from inappropriate contact and materials. Unfortunately, it is not possible to guarantee the credibility of other internet users or their intentions.”
For Cross, however, there is no doubt that Hildreth is playing a crucial role in helping to eliminate child abuse. She says: “This is groundbreaking new technology that will save and protect the lives of young people across the UK.”
A sceptic’s view
Software that identifies whether an online activity is being done by a human or a robot is hard to write. Many blogs are overwhelmed by fake comments written by machines, programmed by humans, boosting some pill or poker site. Telling robots and people apart is really hard for a computer.
So getting a computer to distinguish between two sorts of humans, and notice when a stream of conversation between them turns peculiar, is an order of magnitude more difficult.
Ask Google, and you’ll find dozens of attempts to spot paedophiles online. None has made a lasting impression. It’s too hard. How do you tell the difference between a child and an adult who’s pretending to be a child conversing online? How is it different from a child and an older child conversing? Even humans have problems telling the difference – which is why, a few years ago, MSN closed its chat forums to prevent any such problems.
Two other things make me sceptical about the AGE claims. First, Microsoft hasn’t tried to develop it – not even in research, where it has very smart people – and could make money from it. Second, there is no scientific work published about it – and even Google began as a scientific paper. Where’s the work on this?