How safe are you from sexual predators online?

Rapist Patrick Nevin attacked three women he met on Tinder, but a criminal background check of every user of a dating app would be arduous, writes Joyce Fegan.

How safe are you from sexual predators online?

Rapist Patrick Nevin attacked three women he met on Tinder, but a criminal background check of every user of a dating app would be arduous, writes Joyce Fegan.

This week, serial rapist Patrick Nevin was jailed for 12 years. He used the popular dating app Tinder to meet unsuspecting women and carried out three sex attacks in just 11 days. There have been calls to ban sex offenders from dating apps.

But in a world of hyper-connectivity and in an unregulated cyberspace, how realistic is it to monitor predatory behaviour online and to keep sex offenders offline?

Cybersecurity expert Brian Honan, who was an adviser to Europol’s Cybercrime Centre for four years, is sceptical about the possibility of apps and social media platforms filtering out criminals and predators in their entirety.

“To ban sex offenders: how is Tinder supposed to do that? Would every user go through a criminal check? There are people already talking about showing a proof-of-identity, like a passport, before you can have a Facebook profile.

"We have already seen how data has been misused, so are people going to entrust companies with that level of personal data, just to talk to friends and family?” he asked.

However, once a crime is committed and reported, that anonymity is hard to maintain online.

True anonymity is very difficult to achieve and maintain longterm. There is a peace of mind in that

People use a variety of tools to move around the internet undetected, such as VPNs (virtual private networks). However, the cybersecurity expert, who is CEO of BH Consulting, said no tool is immune to policing authorities.

“Yes, you have VPNs and other tools to hide behind, but that anonymity can be peeled back by the authorities. They can follow your IP (internet protocol) address, the location of your phone — these are both very trackable data. So, for serious crimes, people can report them and the police can investigate,” Mr Honan said.

However, he still believes that platforms have a responsibility to keep their users safe. This view is shared by barrister Pauline Walley, who works in civil, criminal, and internet litigation. It is also a view shared by CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC), Noeline Blackwell.

Ms Walley does not accept the ‘Wild West’ analogy that is often used to describe the unruly and anarchic nature of the internet.

“That analogy suits the platforms and internet providers, because it means they can just step aside,” Ms Walley told the Irish Examiner.

She used a different analogy to describe how we might regulate the internet.

Patrick Nevin sexually assaulted three women he met on Tinder.
Patrick Nevin sexually assaulted three women he met on Tinder.

“If you look at the motorcar in the early 1900s, it was a plaything for rich men. The use of them was considered a private matter. Then, people were getting knocked down and killed, or else knocked down and left with serious injuries. Society started to see the impact of people being mowed down by poorly-trained motorists.

“Society also saw this wonderful technology and said: ‘let’s regulate it.’ Regulation was highly resisted, but society pushed back and said there was a cost to the misuse of this technology. There was more resistance and users argued that the ‘horse and buggy rules’ were already in existence, so there was no need for regulation.

“Now, only 100 or so years later, not only have we the rules of the road, but motorists have to be trained and tested and vehicles too,” said Ms Walley.

The barrister added that with the advance of any new technology, there is always resistance to regulation by some users and inventors. Unfortunately, in terms of internet and platform regulation, Ms Walley believes we are only at the “horse and buggy resistance stage”.

In 2016, the Law Reform Commission (LRC) published the Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety, which included draft legislation.

The bill dealt with digital safety and takedown procedures, in the event that intimate images are shared without consent on the internet, and it also dealt with criminal law offences for harmful communications. Three years later, none of this has become law.

“The Office of Parliamentary Counsel is currently drafting the Government amendments, which will be introduced at the committee stage of the bill later this year,” a spokesman from the Department of the Justice said.

Ms Walley said that in the intervening years, she has seen the damage caused by the vacuum in legislation.

The LRC made those recommendations in 2016, and there is only something happening now. I’ve seen clients’ lives destroyed in the interim.

“It is not enough to be talking the talk. There has been a lot of talk and very little action. It is not good enough,” the barrister said.

Ms Blackwell argues that platforms must have an obligation to keep their users as safe as possible.

“These dating apps are companies; it’s a commercial operation. They work to keep users online and to keep users sharing online. This helps to raise ad revenue and what seems to take a backseat is what to do about safety. They could be doing much more,” said Ms Blackwell.

The Irish Examiner contacted Tinder for a comment on the issue of user safety.

“We utilise a network of industry-leading, automated and manual moderation and review tools, systems and processes — and spend millions of dollars annually — to prevent, monitor, and remove bad actors from our app,” the spokesperson said.

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