Something totally unexpected happened to me at the RSA Conference in San Francisco Thursday: For the first time in my decades-long career, I cried at a technology event. And something tells me I wasn't the only one.
RSAC attendees listened to Alicia Kozakiewicz tell, in amazing detail, of her nightmarish abduction by an Internet predator during the "In to the Woods" keynote panel. On New Year's Day, 2002, when she was only 13 years old, she was lured out of her family's Pittsburgh, Pa., home and into a car. Her abductor, Scott Tyree, had "groomed" her via a Yahoo chat room for nearly a year.
Grooming, for those of you who don't know, is a process by which predators befriend targeted children and earn their trust before luring them someplace where they can be easily snatched. Kozakiewicz sent chills down the spines of every parent in the Moscone Center by acknowledging how effective Tyree's grooming was. (She never referred to him by name.)
"He made me feel beautiful and special and unique," she said. "He told me things I wanted to hear."
It all sounded and felt good to her until she got into his car and everything changed. He nearly crushed her hand as he drove her to his home in Herndon, Va., five hours away, all the while telling her to keep quiet, and warning her that the car's trunk was cleared out for her if necessary. For the ensuing 4 days, Tyree raped and tortured Kozakiewicz in his basement dungeon, streaming the sickening ordeal live for his network of pedophile friends.
Ironically, Kozakiewicz was rescued because one of those pedophiles recognized her picture from news reports and notified the FBI. The tipster wasn't being a hero. The call was from a payphone because that person was afraid being charged as an accessory. That anonymous tip led FBI agents to storm Tyree's home and rescue Kozakiewicz.
"It was one monster rescuing me from another," she told the RSAC audience.
Law enforcement arrested Tyree at his workplace, and he is currently serving a 19-year prison term for the crime. Don't even get me started on the leniency of that punishment — that's another story.
Kozakiewicz has been telling her story for years, and she has an important message for her listeners. "The community, the world couldn't understand how this happened. They couldn't understand how a kid from a good family would do this," she said. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to you."
Co-panelist Dr. Sharon Cooper, a renowned developmental and forensic pediatrician, said the reason so many girls eagerly trust online predators is a matter of simple biology: While girls reach full sexual maturity by about 14 years old, their brains are not fully developed for another decade.
"Their ability to process and understand the consequences is not there," Cooper said, explaining that this is why teenagers willingly share suggestive photos of themselves via text or social media.
What makes Kozakiewicz's horrifying experience stand out among the many such cases that play out every year has been the way she's responded to the experience. Instead of allowing the event to cripple the rest of her life, she's used it to spread the message of how important it is to teach children to protect themselves online.
A year after her rescue, she founded the nonprofit Alicia Project, which has, for more than a decade, promoted online safety and advocated for the recovery of missing children.
Another panelist, Lance Spitzner, training director for the SANS Institute's Securing the Human project, said the most powerful tool for protecting children is communicative parenting. And for those with multiple children, he said there's no better way to know what they're doing than to have them spy on each other.
While there's a strong parenting instinct to shield children from Internet-connected devices for as long as possible, Spitzner believes that's the wrong way to go because connected technology is the center of kids' social lives and is likely to be prominent in their future working lives. Besides, he said, young children are much easier to train and mold when it comes to being safe online.
"Trying to build good behaviors into a 16-year-old is not going to happen," he said.
Regardless of how they manage their kids' use of technology, Kozakiewicz said parents must dig deep and educate their children about the threats that await them if they're not careful with their online behavior.
"This is not an easy topic to talk about with your kids, but you have to," Kozakiewicz said. "You have to be a parent."