A mother who spent several days posing as an 11-year-old girl online recently detailed how she and a team of investigators used cutting edge technology to expose the prevalence of child predators on the internet.
Roo Powell, whose Medium essay, titled "I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned," was written using a pseudonym and viewed over 7 million times and translated into four languages, recently detailed the extent of their investigations into the prevalence of pedophiles preying on children online.
Powell is the head of creative and leads the Special Projects Team at Bark, a tech company that uses artificial intelligence to detect grooming and sexual predation and helps parents monitor text messages, YouTube posts, emails, and other social networks their children might be using.
In a video released last Thursday, Powell explained that the abuses that occur online mostly go unreported and happen quietly. To gain greater understanding on the depth of the problem, her team created a fictional 15-year-old girl named Libby Connelly, complete with a believable back story and social media identity, and then documented how long it would take for a predator to reach out to her.
Using photo manipulation, the Bark team managed to make Powell look two decades younger and used that image as the fictional girl since they could not use a photo of an actual child. The team coordinated their efforts with law enforcement agencies at every level of government.
"Within the first hour of posting on Libby's accounts seven adult men contacted her," Powell explains in the video. "By the end of nine days, that number was 92."
"The conversations ranged in severity, from making sexual comments to sharing and requesting explicit photos and videos, to manipulation and threats."
The deluge of predators seeking to exploit this fictional character was so big it took five full-time staffers at Bark to pretend to be Libby to keep up. The team ultimately decided to move their operation off-site where their efforts could be increased and gather as much evidence as possible.
Amid questions about the legal bar for what is allowed regarding adults interacting with teens online, the Bark graphics team went further, again using high-tech photo manipulation, and transformed the 37-year-old Powell into another fictional character, a pre-pubescent 11-year-old girl named Bailey.
A mere minute and seven seconds after launching this new fake persona, a predator approached online whose profile picture was an explicit image of male genitals. An incoming video call from another predator came within five minutes of going live.
"Few parents know just how dangerous these platforms are for so many kids," Powell goes on to explain.
The app has turned over images of potential child predators to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Their work has reportedly led to numerous arrests.
"The brutal reality is that a predator doesn't have to be in the same room, building, or even country to abuse a child."
"Libby and Bailey may not be real but they represent countless children who are being sexually and psychologically abused, both online and in real life."
She concluded: "When asked, my advice for parents is to talk to your kids early and often. Know what apps they're using and with whom they are communicating. When facing crisis, kids need a soft place to land. Make sure they know they can come to you for help."
Founded in 2015, Bark monitors texts, emails, and over 30 apps and social media platforms for activities that might indicate danger.