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How did a programmer find sex offenders on MySpace?


When MySpace claimed there was simply no way for it to patrol its own profiles for sexual predators, Wired News editor and former hacker Kevin Poulsen took it as a challenge. It took him about five months to write and execute a program that could locate registered sex offenders on MySpace who were dumb enough -- or hey, maybe just that darned honest -- to sign up using their real names.

MySpace has been waiting for new laws to be passed that would require known sex offenders to register their e-mail address in addition to the other required information. This approach seems somewhat pointless considering how many e-mail addresses most people have. I have four. I know people who have 10 or more. But who can blame MySpace for assuming that no one on the registered sex offenders list would sign up on MySpace using their real names? Still, Poulsen took a shot, and the results were astonishing.

He wrote 1,000 lines of Javascript designed to compare MySpace profile names and reported zip codes with the names and zip codes listed in the U.S. Department of Justice online sex-offender database. He set up the program to search the lists for 46 U.S. states and ran the code on the MySpace database servers housing member profiles. What he came up with was disheartening: Of the 1 million profiles scanned, he found more than 700 registered sex offenders, almost 500 of whom had committed crimes against children. And at the time of his reporting the results, he had only analyzed one-third of the data generated by his program.

One of the sex offenders Poulsen uncovered had been actively compiling a list of young friends and sending the underage boys sexually explicit, private messages. He has since been arrested, although police were only able to charge him with attempted child endangerment since he never successfully made physical contact with any of the young boys he was communicating with. According to Poulsen, there were several alarming communications found on the pages of other registered sex offenders, but for every one who appeared to be indulging their predilections, eight seemed to be doing just what pretty much every other MySpace member is doing: talking about their lives, posting funny photos, reporting wedding and job promotions and blogging about their interests.

Poulsen admits that he ended up with a bunch of false positives in the program's reported matches, which he was able to weed out by comparing the MySpace profiles to the mug shots and ages included in the sex-offender database. It's not a perfect system, but it seems to be a better plan than waiting for Congress to pass a law that would be absurdly easy to bypass in the MySpace registration process. Who has only one e-mail address these days? Can Congress enforce a single-address rule for sex offenders? It seems unlikely.

Poulsen's code will soon be released in open-source format so police departments can have full access to the program. MySpace has not commented on the program itself.

For more information on MySpace, sex-offender databases and related topics, check out the next page.


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