Tuesday, December 05, 2006

MySpace: To make you feel safer we'll increase your risk

Another brain-dead idea -- but a nice marketing gimmick for MySpace:

MySpace tool to help block sex offenders

NEW YORK -- The popular online hangout MySpace said Tuesday it will develop technologies to help block convicted sex offenders, the site's latest attempt to address complaints about sexual predators and other dangers to teens.

MySpace is partnering with Sentinel Tech Holding Corp. to build and deploy within 30 days a database that will contain the names and physical descriptions of convicted sex offenders in the United States. An automated system will search for matches between the database and MySpace user profiles. Employees will then delete any profiles that match.

Parents, school administrators and law-enforcement authorities have grown increasingly worried that teens are at risk on MySpace and other social-networking sites, which provide tools for messaging, sharing photos and creating personal pages.

About 12 percent of all MySpace's visitors in October were under 18, according to comScore Media Metrix. The tracking company counts Americans who visit the site at least once in a given month, so the proportion of teens may actually be higher based on time spent.

The aim of such sites is for users to expand their circles of friends - and critics say those circles sometimes come to include sexual predators. Wired News said a recent investigation turned up hundreds of profiles for convicted sex offenders.

Forty-six states now maintain registries containing more than 550,000 convicted sex offenders, each with its own rules on what information the public may obtain, as well as when and what can be done with it.

"How do you analyze those different databases and analyze them against our, right now, 135 million user profiles?" said Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer. "We came to the conclusion (that) there was absolutely no real way to do this in a real-time, scalable fashion."

Instead, Sentinel will build a search tool for MySpace using data from aggregators such as LexisNexis Inc.'s Seisint unit, said John Cardillo, the Miami-based company's chief executive. The database, to be updated monthly, will include details such as names, age, hair color, height, scars and tattoos.

The News Corp. site, however, won't be using Sentinel's technology to verify the ages and identities of users to ensure they're not adults posing as teens - a change urged by many lawmakers and law-enforcement officials.

Cardillo said his service would be ineffective for such a purpose given the site's large teen population. Children don't have public records the same way adults do, he said, so the technology can't rule out whether an adult is posing as a teen online.

"What we'd rather do at this point is solve problems we know we can solve," Cardillo said.

Image-recognition software and other techniques are being considered to identify sex offenders who do not use their real names. In the meantime, Cardillo said, the database technology won't catch everyone but "will be highly effective." He declined to elaborate or provide any quantifiable targets.

Nigam said MySpace would consider making the database, to be called Sentinel Safe, available to rivals.

Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, credited MySpace for trying but said a database was no panacea.

"People who are registered sexual offenders will just not be themselves now (and) the people who they really need to protect kids from in most cases are not (convicted) sexual offenders," she said. "They are people who haven't been caught yet. It's a great PR (public relations) move but frankly I don't think it's going to make anyone safer."

In a statement, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal dismissed the database as ineffective without age and identify verification.

But Nigam said he sees the database as part of a larger strategy that includes education and partnerships with law enforcement. He also said governments ought to require sex offenders to register e-mails they use to help sites like his screen profiles.

"We have to do everything we can in every different angle," he said.

In June, MySpace adopted new restrictions on how adults may contact the site's younger users and request to view their full profiles, which contain hobbies, schools and additional personal details. That, too, was criticized as ineffective because adults may simply register as teens to skirt the restrictions.

Aftab warned parents not to reduce oversight of their kids.

"They see this, they may misunderstand and think it will keep sex offenders off the site," she said. "The fact that it sounds more effective than it really is, that's a big problem."

Credit to Aftab, he's figured this out; it's as dumb as the zones idea.

First, all this does is keep those registered sex offenders who have no intention of re-offending off MySpace. (I know, there are those who don't believe there are such, but the federal statistics show that only about half those released will return to prison, and not always for another sex offense.) Any other measure you make (other than barricading them in Internet-free ghettoes) is going to fail, just as the "you can't enter a school/park/whatever" laws.

Register e-mail addresses? How are you going to enforce that? It's so easy to get a new e-mail address, I've abandoned, lost or forgotten more than I can remember. (Oops -- I'm overdue for my monthly check-in on, um... Hotmail... but which address was it? Drat!)

Okay, I've got it! Let's make it a federal penalty with "life without" for a sex offender to 'possess' (whatever that means, have access to?) an unregistered e-mail address. Let's skip over the enforcement issue and attempt to enter the mind of a registered sex offender who's decided to find a victim (whatever he calls it) on MySpace. So. He goes to the library, internet cafe, or whatever and signs up for a new free Yahoo / Hotmail / Gmail /whatever e-mail account by which he can get to MySpace. Understand, he's already decided to commit a crime that in many locations will get him life anyway, if caught -- how's the unregistered e-mail going to stop him? (And is it a crime if he signs up in Mexico or Canada?)

Okay. That doesn't work. Unless we register e-mail addresses like we do guns. Everybody registers, proves their identity (um... can't use drivers' licenses for ID...). That might work. Unless he signs up in Mexico or Canada...

Looks like it's pretty difficult to keep registered sex offenders out.

But let's say you make it work somehow. What about the unregistered sex offenders, the ones who haven't been caught & convicted yet, the ones who make up about half the convictions every year? They're completely free to come and go. And the dirty secret MySpace doesn't want you to know is that they're on MySpace too. And probably even more of them than the convicted ones, because the unknown ones haven't endured any punishment. But they're there, and the moment you believe your child is any bit safer on MySpace due to these restrictions... the closer your child is to becoming a victim!

Lots of folks, from marketeers to politicians, are trying to make hay for themselves out of sex-offender hysteria. With the possible sole exception of the original registration law (it apparently has a small correlation to a reduction in the sex-crime rate), everything else is snake oil that will only bite those who buy into it.

Your child's safety, like your checkbook, is your responsibility. Give it to someone else and you will pay the price.


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