Conn. AG to MySpace: Turn over sex offender data

Connecticut attorney general serves subpoena on MySpace and says independent research about sex offenders on the social-networking site is the "tip of the iceberg."

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
5 min read

The Connecticut attorney general's office on Friday served MySpace a subpoena demanding that MySpace hand over the identities of registered sex offenders it claims the social-networking site discovered and subsequently removed from its roster of members.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal also told CNET News that his office is reviewing independent research about registered sex offenders said to still populate the site. Blumenthal declined to comment on whether he plans to take further action.

Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, said in a statement provided via e-mail that MySpace was using "state of the art technology to aggressively identify and remove registered sex offenders from our site." He added that MySpace was cooperating with Blumenthal and other state attorneys general requesting information.

Law enforcement officials and parents are concerned that sex offenders can easily find victims on social networks. From deleted profile information, officials can see whether sex offenders have violated parole by joining a social network and whether they have been communicating with minors on the site.

This screenshot shows a registered sex offender on the Texas registry Web site. Texas Department of Public Safety

Friction between MySpace and the states around this issue is not new. Some attorneys general have criticized the company for failing to do more to keep sexual predators off its site. A couple of years ago, MySpace initially rebuffed efforts to share sex offender data, but the service finally agreed to provide officials with the requested information. It then reportedly removed 29,000 sex offenders from the membership rolls. A year ago, when MySpace reached an agreement with the attorneys general, it said it would cooperate with law enforcement officials and develop technology for age and identity verification.

As social networks have grown in popularity (MySpace had 125 million unique visitors in December), law enforcement agencies have warned about the potential danger to minors posed by sex offenders trolling through cyberspace. Politicians, who have picked up that battle cry, have urged social networks to put in place tougher measures to protect minors.

Politics aside, the threat is not just theoretical. Steve Rambam, who is the director of private investigative firm Pallorium, said he found 100 registered sex offenders with MySpace profiles. One man used his mug shot as his main photo, while another, who was convicted of using the Internet to solicit a minor for sex, lists a 15-year-old girl as a friend on his MySpace page.

In carrying out his research, Rambam said he ran a list of 40,000 registered sex offenders against more than 2 million MySpace member pages. He came up with nearly 12,500 likely matches. After comparing the MySpace member photos with mug shots on a registered offender database, Rambam found 100 confirmed matches and said he would have found more if he had continued the research.

Among those matches, CNET News confirmed that at least half a dozen included registered sex offenders. One member's MySpace profile headline read, "Daddy, Oh My Goodness," while another featured a photo caption that reads, "Never accept a ride from a stranger, unless they give you candy first." A third member, who was convicted of sexual assault, uses violent, misogynistic language on his profile page.

"Based on the number of hits we're getting as a percentage of genuine MySpace users we believe that there are anywhere from 3,000 to 39,000 sex offenders on MySpace," Rambam said on Friday.

This is the MySpace page of what appears to be a registered sex offender who used his mug shot (see image above) as his profile photo. MySpace

MySpace is using technology from a company called Sentinel Tech to help find and remove registered sex offenders from the site. According to MySpace, the company takes information members provide when they sign up and information they put on their profile and runs it against Sentinel servers that contain information about registered sex offenders, and follows up with manual checks of suspicious members.

John Cardillo, chief executive of Sentinel, questioned Rambam's methodology.

"We audit our database against all the sites out there, against the states' registries and the federal government registries... It could just be an issue of an individual maybe entering false information and we'll catch them down the road. Without seeing (the research), I can't really comment on it," Cardillo said. "MySpace deploys the most robust and impressive scrubbing apparatus in the business."

Rambam said he stands by his research. "We have a high degree of confidence that the first 100 matches we've compiled match on first and last name, city and state, exact age, and the photos clearly show the same person," he said. "Because of certain information and certain technology we have available to us, we were able to de-anonymize a lot of data and then do a second scrubbing run."

The matches all came directly from state sex offender registries and from the Megan's Law sex offender database, all publicly accessible data, Rambam said.

Rambam did the MySpace research on behalf of California lawyer Gary Kurtz, who is representing a company called Blue China Group in defending itself against a spam lawsuit filed by MySpace. "As part of that defense we are investigating a number of aspects about MySpace, and this pedophile issue popped up as something astounding," Kurtz said.

"These sex offenders and the efforts to find them are a small portion of a year-long investigation we conducted into MySpace," Rambam said.

"MySpace filed a complaint against Blue China Group in federal court in Los Angeles alleging that BCG repeatedly phished and spammed millions of MySpace users," MySpace Chief Security Officer Nigam said in his statement. "Unfortunately, while that lawsuit continues, BCG has apparently decided to raise this unrelated issue without providing any data to support its assertions."

Rambam said two state attorneys general offices have been in contact with him regarding his research. He found hundreds of potential matches from one of the states on MySpace and is preparing a report to give to that agency next week, he said, declining to name the states.

"This ongoing evidence completely refutes claims that child predators are an overblown threat," said Blumenthal, who is on a panel of 11 state attorneys general who have been investigating MySpace and other social-networking sites. "This is the tip of the iceberg."

A report issued last week by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force concludes that minors are less vulnerable to sexual predation than previously believed.