Sex Offenders to Feel Eyes of Big Brother Online - MySpace Works on National Registry
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To those of us who know the history, there's a definite "it's about time!" feeling to MySpace's latest initiative. In mid-October, Wired reported the capture of serial sex offender Andrew Lubrano, who maintained a MySpace profile with 93 friends, including six teenagers he met through the site. The road to that capture began with a 1000-line Perl program written and executed (in April 2006) by Kevin Poulsen. That program searched MySpace's 100 million or more user profiles for registered sex offenders, finding a number of users that matched up with sex offenders registered in California's online database of sex offenders.
As Poulsen noted in his article, "That's something that MySpace has said it cannot do. Rather, it is seeking new laws that would make it easier to ban sex offenders from the site through an e-mail registry." The upshot of Poulsen's program is that Andrew Lubrano got caught...and MySpace could no longer expect to be believed if it said that it couldn't police its own website against sex offenders.
So in December, MySpace announced that it is partnering with Sentinel Tech Holding to build and deploy a database within 30 days. This database will contain the names and physical descriptions of convicted sex offenders in the U.S. The system will have an automated element that searches for matches between the database and MySpace user profiles. The human element comes in when MySpace employees delete the MySpace profiles that match up with someone in the convicted sex offenders' database.
It's going to be a mammoth task. There are more than half a million convicted sex offenders in the U.S., according to states' registries. The problem is that each state has its own rules as to what information is available to the public, how they may obtain it and what they can do with it. Notes Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, "How do you analyze those different databases...against our, right now, 135 million user profiles? We came to the conclusion (that) there was absolutely no real way to do this in a real-time, scalable fashion."
Sentinel plans to use data from aggregators such as LexisNexis to build the database. It will be updated monthly with information that includes names, ages, hair color, height, scars and tattoos. Unfortunately, if someone lies about that information in their MySpace profile, it's unclear whether they will get caught or fall through the cracks. This is just one of the issues with using these kinds of tools.
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