A video game endorsed by the Ontario government and its provincial police will turn elementary school students into computer forensics experts in order to teach them about the dangers of the Internet.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and the Attorney General late

last week launched CyberCops, a software program that will be deployed in Ontario Grade 7 and Grade 8 classrooms this fall. Students will play the games in groups and will be directed by teachers trained in its use, officials said.

Developed by Vancouver-based LiveWire Design Ltd., CyberCops is based on a series of actual crimes that took place in New Brunswick, where a series of young women were lured over the Internet by a man who claimed to run a modelling agency.

“They’re like TV dramas with the clues embedded in them,” said DrewAnne Wake, LiveWires’ president. Students at one point are asked to dig through the code of an e-mail to find an IP address of a potential suspect, then use a program to pinpoint his longitude and latitude within the city of Toronto based on the address.

LiveWire created a similar game about five years ago, called Missing, that has been adopted by several provinces but not Ontario. With CyberCops, the game highlights instant messaging (IM) as a potentially dangerous tool for Internet predators.

“Most kids think instant messaging isn’t a problem, but it can be hacked,” she said.

Arni Stinnissen, detective staff sergeant with the OPP‘s e-crime team, said the police’s role was to make sure the clues provided in the game were technically correct and that the police procedures demonstrated were as accurate as possible.

“There’s one part in it where the cyber-cop is talking to the other guy at the scene, and he says, ‘Can you find someone’s e-mail?’ They use a program called Scavenger, even though the message has been deleted,” he said. “The police then finds the IP address.”

The government is supporting CyberCops as part of a $5 million strategy to fight Internet crimes against children. Other initiatives include the formation of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Internet Crimes Against Kids and a two-year pilot project with the Toronto Police Service to keep closer tabs on convicted sex offenders.

Wake said LiveWires conducted informal research that determined IM messaging doesn’t become very popular with elementary students before the seventh grade. “I think what it happens is, it’s called puberty, and they suddenly develop the enthusiasm for communicating that way,” she said.

Stinnissen said the video game is a vast improvement over the traditional one-on-one approach to awareness and education law enforcement officials have had to take with schools.

“It was all more ‘Do as I say’ type of information,” he said. “Here, the kids actually go through a scenario and learn by doing, rather than having a police officer talk to them.”

Wake said Missing, which has sold 100,000 copies so far, has already helped police catch 10 Internet predators through children who played it, one of whom was later convicted as a serial rapist of 13-year-old girls. CyberCops is also intended to help interest students in computer forensics careers, she added. So far it has been tested with more than 1,000 children.

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