Virtual ID card identifies 'Net users

Parents with children who love to chat on the Internet are familiar with the problem of how to keep their kids safe from online predators.

NetIDme is a virtual ID card service designed to encourage children to check the identity of people they communicate with online in chat rooms and social networks or when exchanging instant messages. For each ID they check or issue, kids are awarded points, which they can exchange for music downloads and ring tones.

The service is the brainchild of Alex Hewitt, a veteran in the online security industry, who saw a need to protect his own children -- and an opportunity to launch a new business.

"I was particularly concerned about one of my daughters, who liked to chat and was receiving lots of messages from strangers," Hewitt said. "When I looked around for some technology to control this communication, I really couldn't find anything. I installed monitoring software but my daughter's chat friends didn't like that, and because I didn't want to restrict access altogether, I came up with the idea of developing a virtual ID card."

The service, first tested in NetIDme's home base in Glasgow is now available in Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and will be rolled out at the start of next year in eight European countries. It costs US$18.99 in the U.S.

NetIDme requires both participants to be registered NetIDme users. To register, users sign up online and are sent a document, which they must complete and return. The document must be signed by the user and, if under 18 years of age, by a parent or guardian. It must also be signed by a professional person, including a teacher or doctor, to vouch for authenticity.

The service is relatively easy to use. Say, a stranger approaches you in a chat room or by instant message. Before you chat, you ask the person to view his or her virtual ID card. To do this, you provide your NetIDme user name.

Then the person who wants to chat with you logs in to the NetIDme Web site with name and password, clicks a tab to create a Net-ID and adds your user name. The system encrypts your name together with details from the new chat friend's account, logging a record of the new Net-ID. It then creates a hyperlink, which the new chat friend can paste directly into the chat window.

When you click on the hyperlink, a browser window opens and takes you to the unlock screen on the NetIDme Web site. Only you can unlock the new chat friend's Net-ID by entering your e-mail, screen name and password. When you've finished entering this data, the friend's Net-ID card is instantly shown on the screen, displaying only the person's first name, age, gender and general location.

A button on the screen allows you to repeat the process by sending your own hyperlink back to the new chat friend, displaying your details. The system automatically stores newly created IDs.

NetIDme is not without its critics, however. Bloggers have attacked the service, claiming it falls short on security. "Contrary to what many bloggers claim, our site uses encryption technology, and we pay a security company a lot of money to make sure we are secure," Hewitt said in defense of the service.

As for assurance against insider attacks, Hewitt points out that all NetIDme employees must consent to a police check, which includes police records and employment history.

Also, at the request of police, the ID service has installed IP (Internet Protocol) tracking technology, which allows messages to be traced back to individual PCs. "Police asked us to have some sort of traceability in the event of abuse," he said.

For parents concerned about the security of their kids on the Internet, NetIDme may not be the perfect solution, but the protection it offers is better than none.

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