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MySpace Predator Caught By Code 374

An anonymous reader writes, "Wired News editor and former hacker Kevin Poulsen wrote a 1,000-line Perl script that checked MySpace for registered sex offenders. Sifting through the results, he manually confirmed over 700 offenders, including a serial child molester in New York actively trying to hook up with underage boys on the site, and who has now been arrested as a result. MySpace told Congress last June that it didn't have this capability." Wired News says they will publish Poulsen's code under an open-source license later this week.
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MySpace Predator Caught By Code

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  • by Rix ( 54095 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @06:27PM (#16460211)
    I suspect the answer will illustrate why a white hat wouldn't be doing this sort of thing.
  • by adaptive_tech ( 1014369 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @06:27PM (#16460219)
    I'm quite glad for this guy; but law enforcement's malaise still cheeses my off a bit. Indeed, writing a Perl script to spider MySpace is not rocket science -- I whipped one up six months ago as part of a graduate school project. Immediately sensing the possibilities of catching people like this, I contacted several people in the CIA and FBI through my school. After several painfully blunt explanations, none of them could grasp how the script could be used in their agencies. Governments and major corporations wonder why China can get into "secure" sites and "kids" write viruses like "ILoveYou" or "Blaster". It's because they're so monolithically slow, stupid, and blind that they can neither see nor react to their environments. Maybe law enforcement will "wise up" and start offering prize money / sponsoring competitions, just like the recent Bio-Tech news here on Slashdot.
  • Names (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ezzewezza ( 84083 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @06:37PM (#16460365)
    So how many false positives and false negatives does this produce? i.e., how many non-offenders does it misidentify as being offenders and how many offenders does it misidentify as non-offenders? Furthermore, of the offenders properly identified, how many of them are actually committing, planning to commit, thinking about committing, wanting to commit, or some other way being involved with the committing of a sexual offender related crime on myspace?

    While the tool may produce results, are the results good enough and non-damaging enough to be useful? (I'd consider any given non-offender being identified as an offender and subsequently harrassed as such rather extensively damaging.)
  • by sootman ( 158191 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @06:40PM (#16460405) Homepage Journal
    > Though they do now have the ability to catch the really stupid ones it seems.

    We had a sliding screen door that didn't work too well. My wife left it half-open one day. I asked her how many flies she thought that would keep out:
    a) all of them
    b) half of them
    c) none of them
    d) just the dumb ones
  • by faux pseudonym ( 1014377 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @06:50PM (#16460557) Homepage
    Hey folks.

    Picking and choosing when it is/is not OK to cooperate with authorities in a criminal investigation might be very convenient for Kevin Lee Poulsen, but it should give his sources -- past, present, and future -- significant pause.

    Wired News -- and Kevin -- have shown that writing a splashy story means more to them right now than the danger of blurring the lines between reporter and cop. This isn't about protecting kids, or about what MySpace should or should not do. It's about eroding the role of the journalist as a fair and impartial witness, in a time when too many people are already barking up that tree.

    A hacker should know better.

    -- Adrian Lamo
  • Re:Good Job Kevin (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 16, 2006 @06:57PM (#16460655)
    It's because people want to outlet their aggressive tendencies someplace, and we've all collectively aggreed that "child molesters" (and now, to some degree "terrorists") are a target that no one will object to our over-reactive hatred for. Other acceptable groups include "cop killers". Let's get all righteous and bloodthirsty over these groups of people, now that it isn't socially acceptable to hate a group based on their skin color.

    See how far we've come?
  • by dctoastman ( 995251 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @07:18PM (#16460941) Homepage
    That he manually confirmed 700 of the results.
    That doesn't say how many false positives he sifted through to get to those.
    Should Myspace be required to have people who manually confirm all users aren't sex offenders?
  • by OmnipotentEntity ( 702752 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @07:27PM (#16461065) Homepage
    The main difference between this and if MySpace were doing it is: if MySpace put protections in place and just one sex offender was missed and wound up molesting some kid, MySpace would be culpable. But if protections are not in place, then it's not MySpaces responsibility. By taking responsibility it become their responsibility and not the responsibility of the kid or their parents...

    Sure it's trivial to find some child predators with a 1000 line perl script, but finding everyone of them would be nearly impossible.
  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Monday October 16, 2006 @08:00PM (#16461429) Homepage Journal

    Sad, but true. I can't tell you how many times I've heard similar things from legal folks over the years.

    That said, if it can be shown that a trivial amount of effort could have prevented someone from being injured, that falls into the category of gross negligence, for which liability cannot be waived. In much the same way, if you serve alcohol at a party and someone has a wreck because they drove home while severely intoxicated, that person and/or his/her victims can sue you for not taking responsibility. The reasons for this are twofold: A. you should reasonably have known that people at your party would get drunk (since you served the alcohol) and B. the effort needed to prevent people from driving home while severely intoxicated is relatively low.

    In short, not taking responsibility doesn't get them off the hook. It makes it a little harder for the parents of some abused kid to sue them, but only a little.


  • by JWSmythe ( 446288 ) * <> on Monday October 16, 2006 @09:58PM (#16462543) Homepage Journal

        Actually, that happened to a friend I knew.

        A box of checks never arrived at their house. While waiting patiently for the 1-2 week delivery time, someone used the account information (name, routing and account numbers) to pay their home telephone bill. Brilliant, I must say.

        I was with them at the bank, when they reported it. Law enforcement got a giggle out of it too.

        Bad guys aren't always very smart. A lot of things they do are out of desperation. Some utility is going to be shut off, and they see a box of checks in a mailbox (actually sitting at the front door). Utilities are paid.

        We never found out what happened with that. I hope local law enforcement went and gave them a ride to the court house. There really wasn't a need for our involvement, they already had our statement. "Checks never got here. We didn't pay that."
  • by Pfhorrest ( 545131 ) on Tuesday October 17, 2006 @12:33AM (#16463745) Homepage Journal
    So has murder, rape, robbery, torture, etc. Those things aren't any less evil just because they've been around for a long time.

    Again, how does that imply it's not evil? Only things that kill, maim, or emotionally scar someone for life are truly evil?

    I think the point he was making was NOT that child molestation isn't a bad thing; rather, that it's no different than murder, rape, etc. Possibly even less of a crime than murder or other violent assault. Murder deprives you of your life, and it is thus the highest of crimes. Assault deprives you, sometimes, of physical health and capabilities. Lesser forms of assault deprive you of your rightful control of your own body and leave nothing but psychological scarring; non-violent rape (e.g. the kind where you are not beaten or stabbed, etc) falls into this category. (Violent rape obviously falls into the former category, and nonviolent rape can segue into for former if STDs or unwanted pregnancy follows). Mind you, I'm not in any way saying that these lesser crimes are at all OK; I'm just saying, look at them in comparison to other, much greater crimes.

    Child molestation is categorically no different than rape; the victim is just younger. Some "child molestation" (statutory "rape" of 16 or 17 year olds, who are biologically adult) is even less of a crime, since the act would by all objective standards be considered consensual if it weren't for the legal fiction that people younger than 18 are incapable of giving consent.

    But we freak the hell out about child molesters and lose all sense of rationality when anything about them comes up. We don't freak out this much about murderers. We still *do something* about murderers; that's why we have police, and courts, and jails and such. We still do something about people who physically assault others, but you don't see this vigilanteism toward your run of the mill violent criminals around. You don't see people writing 1000-line perl scripts to try to identify known gang members on MySpace - particularly because there's not as convenient a list of known gang members to compare with. But a lot of those people are violent criminals guilty of much greater offenses than the pedophiles that every mom in America is terrified of.

    Americans just get particularly worked up about sex, and particularly worked up about children; combine the two together and you get instant emotional frenzy, no rational thought involved. Pedophiles, rapists, witches, communists, terrorists... hell, the whole terrorist scare seems sane in comparison to the frenzy that people get into over sex offenders. At least terrorists actually murder people. Pedos and rapists are the next nearest the top on that little list I just gave, and at least they're a step up from just persecuting people with different beliefs (witches and communists). But next time you or anyone else starts to get riled up about sex offenders, ask yourself why you don't feel the same way about all the more violent criminals out there. Do you want them all on watch lists too? Every man who's ever gotten into so much as a fist fight, a much more violent act than rape? Are you constantly concerned about your children running into people like them on MySpace? If not, why not?

    If so, well, at least you're consistent. I have to give you that.
  • by wile_e_wonka ( 934864 ) on Tuesday October 17, 2006 @12:49AM (#16463853)
    [Note, this post and parent of parent only applies to US law]

    I don't really understand parent. What I am saying is that, if you have any sort of "right" for information about you to be kept private, then that right is on a personal level (meaning it's a matter of common courtesy). It isn't something that is currently extant in the law. That's why tabloids exist. They divulge personal information about famouse people to the general public. Their legal right to privacy was not destroyed when they became famous, they never had such a right. If you want to maintain your privacy in this way, then don't become famous. Sometimes the tabloids publish lies about a famous person--this infringes on a right. We have a right to not have lies published about us.

    As for enumerated rights. Our legal rights are pretty much enumerated; very few are not. The so-called right to privacy that is so commonly misunderstood is an "un-enumerated right," but it only exists because the Supreme Court says it does. After its "discovery" we are to presume that this right has always existed, but in practicality of course it never really existed until the Court said it did. Extending this, there may be other un-enumerated rights that, in the future, will be determined by the Court to exist. In the mean time, for practical purposes that right doesn't exist and won't until the Court conjures it up the same way the "right to privacy" was conjured out of nothing.

    [Note, this post and parent of parent only applies to US law]
  • Re:Good Job Kevin (Score:5, Interesting)

    by adrianmonk ( 890071 ) on Tuesday October 17, 2006 @12:57AM (#16463891)
    We know that child molestation has occurred for untold eons. Humans are therefore resilient, resistant to such things, for the sake of survival. And at the risk of getting flamed, I want to point out the evidence that most victims of such mistreatment do in fact go on to lead normal lives. Natural selection sternly requires it.

    Actually, not exactly, natural selection just requires that the problem doesn't get so bad that it has a significant impact on the ability of the species as a whole to survive. It's perfectly compatible with natural selection if, say, 2% of the population, despite being totally innocent, meets some horrible unfair death, as long as the other 98% gets along fine. If that's enough to keep the species going, then it's all that natural selection requires.

    I think there's a common misconception that evolution is a force which is so powerful that it eliminates all imperfection. That's not necessarily the case. It only eliminates perfections that threaten the ability of the species to do the minimum necessary to survive. All other imperfections are relatively unimportant, at least as far as evolution is concerned.

    Having said that, I've heard it said that of the people who experience some form of severe trauma or abuse, there is a certain percentage who become pretty much permanently (or at least over the long term) messed up in the head and have trouble coping with life in a wide variety of ways. But then there is also a large percentage of people who come from a messed up background who grow up to be perfectly healthy adults. In fact, these people tend to take their messed up background and find some way to make it into something positive. They may even be more successful than the average person. Years ago, I knew someone who came from a background where he and his siblings had all been abused. He wasn't able to deal with it very well and his life was, I hate to say, a serious mess. (I hope he's managed to iron some things out by now.) His sister, on the other hand, had earned a graduate degree in social work (I think) and had written at least one book on the subject of child abuse. She had done well for herself and was making a real difference in the world, and I think she was emotionally healthy as well.

    Basically, it seems like when something really terrible happens to someone, either they are never able to overcome it or they are able to overcome it, and they grow from it in ways that others never would even have the ability to grow. I'm thankful that a good percentage of the people are able to totally recover and be a stronger person as a result. But the reason child molestation and similar things are so bad is that a certain number of people will fall into the first category and never get past it. I don't know why some people are able to get past it and some aren't, but it seems to be the case, and that's why I think we should continue to treat it as a very serious issue.

  • by Xzerix ( 977030 ) on Tuesday October 17, 2006 @06:24AM (#16465665)
    Surprisingly enough It's happened to a colleage of mine.

    Someone added their mobile phone to his account so that he had to pay for the calls. This is the UK so different result here. The mobile company (vodaphone) told him that anyone who quoted his name, address, and date of birth could link any phone to his account and they could do nothing about it (nor wanted to, it seems)

    Result? Yep, they expect him to pay and if he wants some sort of Justice he has to get the police involved himself. Whoever did this must have registerd the phones to their own addresses, provided evidence of ID to get them... the mind boggles that they are getting away with it!

    Now of course if they were seen dropping litter, or speeding they would be infront of a judge PDQ!

  • by sjwaste ( 780063 ) on Tuesday October 17, 2006 @10:17AM (#16468145)
    IANAL, but IAALS. :)

    It depends on whether you think the sentence results in rehabilitation of the convicted. Prison these days serves to incapacitate criminals, but does far less to rehabilitate them as it once did. Some judges, legal scholars, people in general argue that the criminal justice system should refocus on rehabilitation instead of only incapacitation and retribution.

    From the practical perspective, we could probably justify putting away offenders of certain sex crimes (rapists, child molesters, etc) for a lot longer than we do. To me, tracking them via a registry when they get out of jail seems like a more than fair compromise.

    Now, your bit about serial killers. I agree, but I don't think serial killers get out of jail too often unless they escape. One count of first degree murder gets a steep sentence in most jurisdictions. Do it twice and there's little chance you're getting out of jail. Step up to serial status, you'll probably never see the real world again. Now, involuntary homicide or even the lesser voluntary homicides (google "Ladder of Homicide" for some more info), I might be inclined to agree. We let second degree murder and manslaughter offenders out fairly frequently, and a lot of those should probably be on a registry for the same reason a sex offender is. I don't know what the statistics are on likelihood to commit the same crime for sex offenders vs lesser killers, though.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.