Internet Predators and Their Prey
MySpace Not a Place for Predators
A senior at the University of Colorado was falsely labeled a sex offender by MySpace in May 2007, and her profile was removed. She wrote to correct the mistake, says Kevin Poulsen for Wired.com, concerned that this erroneous information could become public. The mistake was acknowledged by Sentinel Tech Holding Corporation, the leading online background verification company, which had entered into an agreement with MySpace in December 2006, to identify registered sex offenders (RSO) on the social-networking site.
According to a December press release, "MySpace will employ a 24-hour-a-day, dedicated staff to proactively monitor for convicted sex offenders identified by Sentinel Safe and remove any matching profiles from the community. MySpace will continue to work with The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement to identify any suspect individuals and assist in investigations."
In the case of the misidentified student, a Sentinel official clarified what happened: they'd found a sex offender with the same name as hers and a birthday only two days and two years apart, so the computer had made the match. However, the offender lived in a different state, and the two women's photos showed two very different people. Apparently, the verification went only so far.
Mistakes will be made, unfortunately, especially when computers are left to do the matching, but this problem does not detract from the potential benefit of identifying sex offenders by cross-matching the MySpace database with RSO databases. Sexual predators have quickly figured out that many kids online— especially lonely, vulnerable kids — will talk with anyone, and that the best approach to this highly popular site was to build a MySpace profile and become "buddies." RSOs could easily pass as just another kid, drawing the naïve into their webs. MySpace personnel are aware of the problem and have joined with Sentinel to try to address it; they have also hired a new security chief.
When law enforcement officials learned about Sentinel's early estimate of several thousand RSOs with MySpace profiles, the attorneys general from eight states jointly sent a letter to MySpace. Caroline McCarthy reported on Cnetnews.com, that in this letter the attorneys general insisted that allowing sex offenders onto MySpace placed them in proximity to children, a violation of the terms of probation or parole for many of the offenders. By May 29, they expected MySpace to provide the exact number of RSO profiles that Sentinel had collected and their procedures for dealing with these criminals. They also contacted authorities from all 50 states, urging them to join them in applying pressure on MySpace to do more to protect children. Jen Shreve, from Wired, indicated that in 2006 there were more than 100 criminal incidents involving adults with MySpace profiles preying on underage participants.
MySpace, it turns out, wasn't keen about the way these demands were issued.