Ever since my two sons began using AOL’s instant messaging service in the late-1990s, I’ve been intrigued by the potential for good and evil inherent in anonymous Internet chat, a device featured prominently in both of my novels. Like every parent, I feared my kids could become vulnerable to predators if allowed to roam cyberspace unattended, a concern substantiated many times over by the prodigious workload of the FBI’s Innocent Images Task Force.
CuriousReader: The danger of online child predators is well-documented, but should adults be worried, too? (eyes wide)
LarryKahnWriter: To quote Sarah Palin, “You betcha.” (Big, politically-savvy wink)
Many online service providers host chat rooms, allowing participants to converse with everyone in a virtual “room” or privately using an instant messaging application. Typically, anyone can acquire a free screen name without providing identifying information, possibly in violation of terms of service (I know, shocking, right?). Many users engage in harmless banter about hobbies or seek mutual support for shared setbacks. Others rely on anonymity to engage in frank discussions or dramatizations about sex. (Based on my research, these encounters might more fairly be characterized as raunchy, even depraved in some cases.)
CuriousReader: Did you develop a virtual rash from this research? (LOL)
LarryKahnWriter: (Rolls eyes) Everyone’s a comedian in cyberspace. Although the medium does attract a sleaze factor, the services I checked out all have means to exclude offensive participants from ever contacting you again. To be fair, I also found many polite, interesting people simply seeking an outlet to express hidden desires.
Many of the characters in my suspense novel, King of Paine, are connected by their mutual interest in kinky online roleplay. Here’s a passage that describes how my protagonist, Frank Paine, explains the appeal to Jeronimo Reyes, an FBI cyber agent who detects a suspicious connection between Frank and their new case:
[Frank] explained how the anonymity of the RealTime chat rooms presented a unique opportunity to explore women’s minds without the distraction of celebrity but never sparked his passion until he discovered the darker side of online chat. Hidden among the shallow and uncouth dimwits who riddled cyberspace, he had stumbled upon an elite group of zealous, intelligent devotees of the BDSM lifestyle who shared his own repressed impulses.
In Hollywood, every aspect of his life was dictated by his job. Besides the obvious scripting of lines on the set, he needed to exercise and watch his weight religiously to maintain a consistent appearance from day to day. He dreaded the constant public scrutiny of every aspect of his life, never being “off,” never fully in control of his mind or body. But in his domination scenes, The King of Paine controlled all. He was able to imagine new highs he couldn’t experience in real life.
While Frank had abandoned this world–online and off–three years earlier, an anonymous stalker who sets up innocent victims online is threatening to reveal Frank’s secret past. The stalker’s techniques, and the FBI response, present a chilling warning to chat room users.
CuriousReader: Are you a hacker?
LarryKahnWriter: No, I just researched threats particular to instant messaging to add credibility to my story. However, procedures adopted by hackers, online providers, security software and law enforcement are constantly evolving, and the information provided here and in King of Paine should not be viewed as state of the art. Be cautious.
To state the obvious, you never know who you’re really chatting with online. Nobody is as they represent, and that may be part of the allure. Participants lie about their age, physical attributes, even their gender. Most are harmless, viewing chat more as a place to experiment with alternate selves than as a dating service.
For some, though, what starts out as an innocent game ends tragically. 20/20 recently featured a story about an online love triangle in which two “young” men vied for the affection of a pretty girl in a different state. The one guy who represented himself accurately was murdered by a middle-aged married man; the vixen they fought over turned out to be a frumpy woman pretending to be her own daughter.
Other encounters are initiated with malevolent intent. Predators can disguise their digital presence by routing transmissions via proxy servers, remote service providers that make Internet communications anonymous. Most innocent users don’t take that precaution, and a security-savvy imposter may be able to upload a virus or trojan horse onto your computer, potentially accessing identifying information and other private data. The cyber agents in King of Paine elaborate on these pitfalls in the course of their investigation.
Speaking of cyber agents, your chat partner may be one. The FBI and other local law enforcement officials pose online as vulnerable targets in order to flush out predators, a tactic used with dramatic effect in King of Paine.
CuriousReader: So who am I chatting with now?
TheKingOfPaine: You have no idea (evil, maniacal laugh)