Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The unwitting internet victim

by G.M. Malliet

Our guest at Inkspot today is Detective Kristyn Bernier.

Detective Bernier is an 18-year veteran of the Portsmouth, NH, Police Department,  specializing in undercoved internet crime investigation, child exploitation, sexually based crimes, domestic violence, sex offender management and undercover narcotics work. She is currently a member of the New Hampshire Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, actively investigating offenders who possess, manufacture and distribute child sexual assault images. Prior to becoming a law enforcement officer, Det. Bernier was a family assessment specialist and caseworker working with juvenile offenders and juvenile victims of child abuse and sexual abuse. Det. Bernier is the co-author of Cyber Crime Fighters: Tales from the Trenches (Que 2009), and gives internet safety presentations throughout New Hampshire. She was recently published in Serial Offenders in Theory and Practice (Borgeson & Kuehnle 2012) having co-authored a chapter on Adult Sex Offenders. She trains law enforcement professionals in various areas, including the interview and interrogation of sex offenders and child predators and victim interview techniques, hostage negotiation, domestic violence and stalking. Det. Bernier has been recognized by the Department of Justice, the NH Attorney General's Office, Sexual Assault Support Services and other agencies with awards and commendations with regard to her work.

Kristyn writes:

So, here I am on a deadline. I need deadlines, and yet, I have great difficulty adhering to them. Yes as a writer, however more-so with everyday things, like paying bills online, completing my police reports and getting my son’s school field trip permission slips in on time. I’m a "pressure makes a diamond" girl. When Felicia Donovan and I were writing our book, she would meticulously set aside time every day just to write. I thought that was hilarious. More than once I stressed her out with the fear that I would not get the many pages I owed completed. Her desk, orderly. Her life, orderly. My desk, sheer and utter chaos, with a dash of crazy hoarder thrown in. My life, literally flown by the seat of my pants. Scary, considering that I am a mom and a police detective, two roles that one would think might require planning, organization and some semblance of order. Not. Anyway, my modus operandi is to wait until the last minute, and then, in whirlwind fashion, pull a final (and generally acceptable) product out of nowhere. And here we are, still waiting for a brilliant blog to magically appear…

The concept of me blogging would be entertaining to anyone who knows me at all. Blogging requires focus and commitment (I said yes to this because it was a one shot thing). I have not been successful yet committing to taking a vitamin, checking emails or even harvesting crops on Farmville. At last count, I had 16,000 emails in my Gmail account, hundreds not read. I can’t even commit to deleting things. I cannot commit to using my Outlook calendar at work (I prefer sticky notes and a dog eared day minder), I completely disregard the 3000 mile sticker for my next oil change, and I allow my cell phone battery to go dead constantly. I have my appointments, court dates and other such obligations in the rolodex in my head.

Now that I have procrastinated for two paragraphs, I need to have a purpose here. Funny, that  I am never at a loss for words or opinions about things when they are not solicited from me. Just ask my co-workers and supervisors. I was once described as being “overly generous” with my thoughts. However, now that my thoughts have been requested,  I am experiencing a little block, similar to that of being asked to produce a sample at one’s doctor’s office on demand.

My day job provides never-ending anecdotes and “you can’t make this stuff up” moments. I have had some amazing experiences, my favorite, and most dangerous, being as an undercover narcotics detective, buying crack in city drug houses. But my mind keeps going back to a niche in law enforcement into which I fell, never really intending to find myself. I have always been a staunch victim advocate, fighting for victims and children in an in-your-face way, not caring who I pissed off in the process. On the occasions when I have testified in front of our legislature, I have had people on either side of me prepared to kick or elbow me when I get out of hand (verbally or just by way of my exaggerated facial expressions). I have been given a “gag order” with regard to my stand on a recent issue involving the release of sex offenders when my boss got word that I was not making friends in the political world in our state’s capitol. I honestly believe that people really don’t want to hear the awful truth about crime, about victims and about how the system and laws often re-victimizes them. Unless one has been a victim of crime, it is easiest to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people.  I have made it my personal mission to make sure the truth is heard.  A deputy chief once told me I did “the work of the angels”, a mission I am drawn to continue. The victims I have fought for have been the “hands on” victims who have been physically hurt by someone who was supposed to love them and take care of them. Yet, more recently, my motivators are no longer just the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, but now also those who have fallen prey to the perils of the world wide web and technology.

Every day, a new victim of technology finds his or her way to my caseload. While there are adult victims of the crimes that I investigate, the majority are children, and the numbers increase in a mind boggling manner every day. We swim against the tide with child exploitation crimes, in part because it is not just the child porn collectors and “traveler” child molesters chatting on line who we must chase. There is an alarming trend of children armed with technological devices but with minimal supervision, boundaries, maturity or sound judgment,  who are essentially handing themselves over to the online predator with their high risk behavioral choices. The right predator in the right situation need not make much effort at grooming or enticing anymore. The kids are now packaging themselves up and readily giving themselves up for victimization.

We fight everyday to lock up the collectors who have been passing around child sexual assault images through file sharing software such as Limewire or through emails or social networking sites like Gigatribe. The battle is endless looking for known victims in FBI identified videos. And now we have a surge of new child pornography that our children are making of themselves willingly, until it is too late and they realize that the video or picture has been disseminated and can never be removed from the internet. They are victimizing themselves in a very risky activity that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

This week alone, I handled three separate cases involving minors disrobing and performing sexual acts via their webcams  on Skype. They each willingly gave their number to a stranger they each met on a site called Omegle. Omegle is akin to “stranger roulette”’ – you have no idea who you might be connected with to chat. These young girls walked on the edge for fun, and only too late realized that they had been videotaped by the other person. They were then threatened that if they did not continue, the person would upload their video and information to the internet. Voila, brand new child pornography – child pornography that is being created unwittingly by children every day. The creation of these videos at the urging of some predator in internet land is horrifying enough, and yet we haven’t even touched on the possibility that those predators know who these children are,  their cell phone numbers and where they live.  Each parent emphasized that they thought they had safety rules in place. Yet clearly they didn’t,  as these videos were made by their children using laptops, webcams and cell phones at all hours of the night. This is common these days, as is the young teen who videotapes herself and sends it to her boyfriend, who years later posts on adult pornography sites; or the 12 year olds who pose naked and send the pictures to someone they met on a  gaming site at 2 AM. These kids are not necessarily from “broken homes” or low income families. These kids are nice kids, good students and athletes, kids you would want your kid to hang out with. Their parents are good, hardworking people. So what the heck is going on?

I believe that we have forgotten the basics of safety. You know, the safety rules you learned as a little kid. Look both ways before you cross the street, hold hands and stick together, never go anywhere alone, red means stop, don’t ever show anyone your underwear,  and do not talk to strangers. These are simple rules, completely applicable to modern technology, and yet we have failed to adhere to them. We take the car keys away from the disobedient teen, we ground the kid for getting poor grades, we enforce a curfew, and we do not let the kids run around with people we do not know. But we have no problem handing the 12 year old a little laptop with webcam and an iPhone complete with web access and no real rules. Parents have no problem taking the car keys away, but they won’t put a curfew on the phone or internet use.

The internet takes us to just as many places as the car does, and it allows an unlimited number of strangers and potentially dangerous people into our children’s lives, so why don’t we do a better job of setting and enforcing basic safety rules? Personally, I see no reason why the 12 year old needs the iPhone, but at least if a parent is going to give that device to the child, then that parent must be willing to set firm boundaries. Parents can monitor calls through their mobile plans, can locate their child through GPS and can block certain calls. Parents can monitor texting, calls and web access, just as easily as they can know every place a child goes on that laptop through a keystroke logger or monitoring software. There is nothing wrong with enforcing that internet activity will be done in a location within eyesight of a parent, and certainly nothing wrong with demanding that that cell phone be on the kitchen counter in the charger by bedtime. Parents can even automatically shut down a child’s web access at a specific  time each night. There is also nothing wrong with taking that device away for infractions, just as you would take away the car, the gaming system or that party. There is nothing wrong with expecting that your child will provide you with login and password information on all active accounts.

We can also instill boundaries with our children as to what is and is not acceptable information to share online not only with strangers, but with email and social networking friends. As parents, we can model that behavior. Far too often we see adults posting way too much information about themselves or their personal drama online. We should be showing our children that there are some aspects of their lives that should be kept private and certainly personal information that should not be shared over the internet.

I have had parents counter that they want to be their child’s friend and don’t want the child to feel as though he or she is being monitored. Too bad. Your children have plenty of friends, just check their Facebook pages – they probably have more friends than you do. What they need is a parent. A  parent who is willing to set boundaries and enforce the unpopular rules for the sake of safety. A parent who stays aware of current issues and trends and who makes time to keep open lines of communication with  that child every day.  A parent who teaches the basics of stranger danger and look both ways because it is your responsibility to do everything in your power to guide your child safely toward making solid, mature behavioral decisions.  A parent who would rather risk having a pissed off teen than risk having a child fall prey to the online predator who is always looking for that opportunity to take advantage of a vulnerable child. 

I would welcome the day that I do not have to investigate the victimization of a child in any way, however I would settle for the day that I do not have to respond to a preventable case involving a child who unwittingly became an exploitation victim by his or her own actions online because no one had set boundaries.

And once again, my scattered mind finds last minute direction and purpose, hoping to remind readers that our safety is often in our own hands, and certainly that the basics of safety we learned as kids can serve our own children well, even in the technological world. 


Felicia Donovan said...

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why my co-author is an exemplary police officer who continues to garner my respect more and more each passing day.

Felicia Donovan
Co-Author, Cyber Crime Fighters: Tales from the Trenches

Darrell James said...

Enjoyed the post Kristyn (thanks for introducing us Gin).

My father was so VERY safety conscious with us kids. Those lessons stick with me today.

Alice Loweecey said...

Thank you so much for this post!

Lois Winston said...

Great post! Thanks for taking the time to guest on InkSpot.

Deborah Sharp said...

It's a strange new world out there, but you're right, Kristyn: the old safety advice still holds true, in a more tech-savvy format. It scares me the kind of things kids think are OK to put online. Good post, and welcome to InkSpot.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I'm catching up late here, but this was a terrific post. Thanks so much for taking the time to share.