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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

07-12-07

Harms

ISU professor Chad Harms is seeking to stop online sexual predators through his research initiatives. Photo by Bob Elbert

Contacts:

Chad Harms, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, (515) 294-4466, charms@iastate.edu

Mike Ferlazzo, News Service, (515) 294-8986, ferlazzo@iastate.edu

ISU prof provides online predator identification tips in Sex Offender Law Report

AMES, Iowa -- Chad Harms has made it his personal mission to stop online sexual predators. The Iowa State University assistant professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication makes that clear on his research Web site (http://www.stopandhelp.org/), appropriately titled STOP for the Study for the Termination of Online Predators.

And Harms has taken his research directly to law enforcement. He's written a two-part series on the grooming of child victims by sexual online predators for the publication, "Sex Offender Law Report," a newsletter published by the Civic Research Institute.

Article One: explaining the online grooming process

The first article explains the grooming process and includes operation definitions, stages and a need-based theoretical perspective for law enforcement officials.

"Grooming refers to the affinity-seeking strategies that are used. And those are things that we say to get people to know like and trust us," said Harms, who also is a faculty affiliate in ISU's Virtual Reality Application Center (VRAC) and on the graduate faculty of the university's Human Computer Interaction program.

His paper details several affinity-seeking strategies. They include:

  • Presenting characteristics and qualities about one's self
  • Presenting characteristics and qualities about the relationship and each other
  • The language used to denote "control" and power
  • The language used to suggest a physical meeting

"Another part is information acquisition," said Harms. "As a perpetrator is interacting with a targeted victim, they're paying close attention to the things that victim says, any information being provided. So they're acquiring information about them."

According to the paper, the information that is acquired by predators meets their needs, establishes the victim's willingness, and helps determine opportunity.

The third part of the paper details sexual desensitization techniques -- the images that are used and the things that are said to lower the natural negative reaction to the idea of adult-child sex, according to Harms.

"Individuals who are grooming a child in this way will show images to say 'Look, this is normal that this stuff goes on. Here's a picture of this stuff that I was describing,'" he said. "These things happen in different ways. Sometimes it's rather abrupt, and sometimes it's very subtle."

Article Two: info. acquisition and social networking sites

His second article looks at social networking Web sites like MySpace and Facebook and the information acquisition that goes into an online predator's choice of victim on those sites. He details information-seeking tactics used by online predators in social networking, which include:

  • Surveillance: the tactic used by perpetrators to browse profiles and narrow the scope of potential victims
  • Observing: an unobtrusive means by the perpetrator of gathering information about the target -- such as specific traits of the victim, specific communications, detailed accounts of situations and specific behaviors or actions taken.
  • Disguising conversations: the tactic used by the perpetrator to put the target at ease and enter into the growing process -- typically affinity-seeking strategies.
  • Testing limits: the creation of situations to which the target must respond -- extending grooming to the experimentation phase through sexual desensitization tactics.
  • Third parties: gathering information about the target from other individuals who can previously be connected to the targeted victim or the perpetrator.

"Social networking Web sites are only one context in which perpetrators identify and initiate the grooming of targeted victims," Harms wrote in the article. "Chat rooms, peer-to-peer systems and other interactive communication technologies continue to serve as opportunistic location for perpetrators to meet children. Two growing problem areas that should be highlighted are video games and mobile communication devices. Gaming systems and online multi-user games that offer text of audio-based collaborative communication functions should be of concern to law enforcement officials."

Coding communication to detect predators

Harms has created a system in which online communication can be coded to detect an online predator. He has tested his system on actual transcripts -- coding affinity-seeking strategies, information acquisition techniques and sexual desensitization -- and found it to be reliable.

"The classic grooming has always gone on for millennia, but it's always gone on behind closed doors," said Harms. "Now, with technology, this is the first time that you get a transcript of that grooming. You actually get to see what is being said and how that communication is going back-and-forth. And that's my background in communication research."

He has submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to develop and refine the prototype of his computational models that will facilitate efficient and reliable identification, capture, categorization and analysis of text-based communication of sexual offenders on the Internet. Harms presented a related paper titled, "Human Communication Functions of a Computer Generated Artificial Intelligence Agent: Creating a Tool to be Used by Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Law Enforcement Officers for the Extraction of Online Pedophiles," last summer at the annual International Conference on Cybernetics and Information Technologies, Systems and Applications.

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Quick look

Chad Harms, an assistant professor in ISU's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, has written a two-part series on the grooming of child victims by sexual online predators for the publication, "Sex Offender Law Report," a newsletter published by the Civic Research Institute. He's also created a system in which online communication can be coded to detect an online predator.

Quote

"The classic grooming has always gone on for millennia, but it's always gone on behind closed doors. Now, with technology, this is the first time that you get a transcript of that grooming. You actually get to see what is being said and how that communication is going back-and-forth. And that's my background in communication research."

Chad Harms