Glancing in the rearview mirror, she catches sight of her 12-year-old daughter, earbuds in place, head down, smartphone beeping as texts fly out and are answered. She smiles to herself and turns back to the road, unaware the exchange is not with one of her daughter’s classmates, but with an 18-year-old boy intent on persuading much younger girls to “sext” with him.
However, after dropping her daughter at a friend’s for the evening and going on to a free cyber-safety seminar at her daughter’s school, she will gain access to a free tool that will help her find out — in time — how wrong she was.
Launched in March 2014 and sponsored by a multi-corporation foundation, the KidsSafe campaign uses off-duty and retired police officers to present free cyber-safety seminars for parents. Parents who attend these trainings receive free access to My Mobile Watchdog, a monitoring application designed to target cyber bullying and harassment, sexting and sextortion. My Mobile Watchdog allows parents to establish a list of approved callers, and sends an alert to parents if an unknown party attempts to contact a child. It also allows parents to view their child’s location and monitor text messages and phone calls. The Android-based application stores forensic information in a certified data center in the Cloud from which parents can download reports and potentially share them with school administrators and law enforcement.
“Parents can set up rules such as ‘no texts after 9 p.m.’ They can allow or disallow any app, the camera or access to the web, and they can set up filters if they do allow Internet usage. It gives parents a broad range of tools,” says Bob Lotter, CEO of the company that produces MyMobileWatchdog. The company produces a similar tool called Radar, which is free to sworn law enforcement officers on request and has resulted in hundreds of child predators being arrested and convicted over the past 10-plus years.
“We are trying to get parents to use technology to stem the tide. Education alone is not enough: we can’t just bring them to a meeting and teach them about the danger without also giving them the technology to effectively manage what their kids are being exposed to,” he says.
In order to provide free technology to parents, the developer began seeking out corporate funding partners and experienced Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) investigators, as well as developing affiliations with school districts. The program originally launched in California; Jefferson County, Colo.; and the Chicago suburb of Naperville. KidsSafe will work with any interested law enforcement agency to provide localized training, and train-the-trainer instruction offered through the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) will also help spread KidsSafe more widely across the country. School resource officers interested in becoming trained to present KidsSafe in their communities can make arrangements through the NASRO website (www.nasro.org).
“I think it will be a fantastic union of all three parties. It’s just what SROs need, because many of them don’t understand what Internet crimes entail,” Wistocki says. “We’ll be teaching them to investigate computer crimes and to empower the parents to work with them.”
Wistocki, who has worked in cybercrime investigations since 1997, says the field has evolved from going on AOL in the early years with a fake persona to dealing with the present-day bewildering abundance of technology.
“First it was instant messages on the computer, now predators contact children over their phones,” Wistocki says. “I’ve been using Radar since 2005. Prior to adopting it, I had to take screen shots of a ‘conversation with a bad guy.’ The tool carves the entire conversation into a neat report. The amount of time it saves and the strength of the admissible evidence it provides is incredible.”
MyMobileWatchdog also can provide an incredible amount of information to parents — if they can be persuaded to use it. Wistocki says there are times that law enforcement plans a big event, and only a few parents show up: “The reason they give for not showing up is ‘my kid would never do that.” What they really mean is ‘I hope my kid would never do that.’ They don’t realize that predators are not only 40-year-old creepy guys anymore. They may be 18, 16, 14. I’ve had children as young as eighth grade collecting images of child pornography and threatening other kids.”
Wistocki says he has found that working together with school administrators to attach the training to an already scheduled event results in a higher attendance, helping him achieve his “calling to teach parents. Within 30 days of every parent presentation I do, a parent calls me and says he’s found something. I’ve had them call me as quickly as three hours later — at 1 in the morning! It only works on Androids and Blackberrys, and parents are turning in their iPhones and switching to Android so they can monitor their kids.
“The parents who take the training tell other parents, and they want to attend training and get the tool too,” he adds. “That way, the nets get bigger and wider, and we catch more predators and save more kids.”
Saving more kids is Lotter’s goal as well, as he says he encourages other providers of similar technologies to also provide free product to parents: “I’m not doing this to promote my product. I’m doing it to promote child safety.”
Law enforcement agencies interested in presenting KidsSafe training in their local schools may visit www.MyMobileWatchdog.com for information on how to qualify for subsidized training.