Wired News editor (and notorious reformed hacker) Kevin Poulsen has an article up today explaining how he wrote a script that ferreted out registered sex-offenders on MySpace, something the company has refused to do. Some of the offenders he found were just hanging out with their friends and families, but a few were actively soliciting sex from children — his work led to the arrest of one such, Andrew Lubrano.
Poulsen's project appears aimed at producing some empirical data on whether pedophiles are using MySpace, and whether MySpace could effectively police their activity (Fox, who own MySpace, are lobbying for a law requiring sex offenders to register their email addresses to make this easier). But he evinces skepticality about whether this would be a particularly useful technique in the long term — and I agree. This only works for so long as sex offenders use the names they were arrested under (or under Fox's proposal, it only works if they voluntarily obey the email registry law even as they set out to commit another crime). Presumably, if Fox was continuously combing its registry for known offenders, word would get around and the bad guys would assume aliases.
In May, I began an automated search of MySpace's membership rolls for 385,932 registered sex offenders in 46 states, mined from the Department of Justice's National Sex Offender Registry website — a gateway to the state-run Megan's Law websites around the country. I searched on first and last names, limiting results to a five mile radius of the offender's registered ZIP code.
Wired News will publish the code under an open-source license later this week.
The code swept in a vast number of false or unverifiable matches. Working part time for several months, I sifted the data and manually compared photographs, ages and other data, until enhanced privacy features MySpace launched in June began frustrating the analysis.
Excluding a handful of obvious fakes, I confirmed 744 sex offenders with MySpace profiles, after an examination of about a third of the data. Of those, 497 are registered for sex crimes against children. In this group, six of them are listed as repeat offenders, though Lubrano's previous convictions were not in the registry, so this number may be low. At least 243 of the 497 have convictions in 2000 or later.
Update: Jenn Shreve sez, "This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote for Wired News in May. In that article, I manually compared My Space pages to those in California's Megan's Law database, based on a suggestion from Alex Strand of MySpaceWatch.com.