Group Urges Obama to Create National Security Officer to Address Online Dangers

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Online safety advocates are urging President-elect Barack Obama to put more resources toward protecting children from crime, harassment and predators on the Web.

In a report to be released today, the Family Online Safety Institute, a Washington nonprofit organization, is urging the new administration to appoint a national safety officer to serve under the chief technology officer, a position Obama has promised to create. The group is also asking for $100 million a year to fund education and research, an annual White House summit on safety issues, as well as the creation of a national council to coordinate efforts among federal agencies and advocacy and industry groups.

"We need to react more swiftly to the challenges new technology brings," said the institute's chief executive, Stephen Balkam. "We see a lot of activity in the industry and some agencies, but I don't see overall coordination we can work off of."

Protecting children and teens from the new dangers presented by the proliferation of social networks, blogs, instant messaging and cellphones is seen as a growing challenge. Officials cite incidents such as the case of the Missouri woman convicted last month for computer fraud for her involvement in creating a fake MySpace page to trick 13-year-old Megan Meiers, who later committed suicide.

Such cyberbullying tactics are just one type of crime targeting Web-surfing, text-messaging minors, online safety advocates say. Minors are also vulnerable to identity theft, exposure to inappropriate material and abusive messages.

Currently, much of the federal funding for raising safety awareness has been focused on law enforcement, Balkam said. The Department of Justice, for example, has developed instructional material. The Federal Trade Commission has created educational Web sites. Companies, including Internet service providers and social networks such as MySpace, have launched their own content filters and other safeguards to protect teenage users.

The Family Online Safety Institute's recommendations are a step in the right direction but may not go far enough, said Nancy Willard, executive director for the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. She said a national effort has to include teachers and behavioral specialists, rather than focusing solely on technology policy.

"Young people who are at the greatest risk online are the ones who are already at greater risk in the real world," she said. "We have to stop thinking about Internet safety as a technology issue and recognize that it is an extension of youth risk behavior."

Samuel McQuade, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has studied cybercrime, said education is the key. Many young people, from first-graders to college students, are not aware of the information security risks of the mobile devices and Web sites they use every day, he said. Parents and teachers should also be taught responsible online behavior.

"Today's under-supervised and under-educated kids are increasingly technology-savvy," he said. "And they are growing up to become the next generation of managers that rely on these systems to protect the nation's most critical information."

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