February 17, 2008

Holes Left in MySpace’s Web Safety

PHILADELPHIA _ In the spring of 2006, Shawn Little met a 14-year-old Bucks County, Pa., boy on MySpace.com, the self-styled "place for friends."

Little, however, was no friend. He was a 25-year-old man trolling the Web for boys.

Posing on MySpace as a fellow teen, Little approached the youth online, lured him to his Levittown, Pa., home, and sexually assaulted him.

Calling him "every parent's nightmare," Bucks County Judge Albert Cepparulo sent Little to state prison last spring for six to 15 years.

"When you hear of a case like this," the judge said in court, "you want ... to take the computer and to hit it with a sledgehammer."

Distressed by such incidents, 49 state attorneys general last month announced a safety agreement with MySpace _ the world's largest social networking site, with 110 million users _ aimed at shielding children from strangers in cyberspace.

In theory, most adults would be unable to view the sites of users younger than 18, or contact them online.

But even the pact's backers _ MySpace's security chief included _ admit it would not keep a predator like Shawn Little from underage prey.

That's because the safety barriers it prescribes depend largely on MySpace subscribers truthfully reporting their ages when creating online profiles. And it offers no reliable means of identifying or policing the suspected millions who do not.

Little's site, for instance, listed him as 14, the minimum age allowed by MySpace.

"I've been arguing this point for more than a year now," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, who considers the agreement more blueprint than panacea. "Age verification has been the number-one issue for us from the very beginning."

Until that nut is cracked, no set of guidelines can keep 12-year-olds from registering their virtual selves as adults, or stop 60-year-olds from masquerading online as high school cheerleaders.

"Kids are still very vulnerable online, even with the agreement," New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a leading Internet-safety advocate, felt so strongly about the pact's shortcomings that he refused to sign on.

"This agreement is not an all-clear sign that it is safe for children to go onto MySpace," Abbott said in a telephone interview. Any predator "can go on there right now and establish a profile as a 15-year-old. That poses a great danger."

Representatives at MySpace headquarters in Beverly Hills, Calif., declined to comment for this article. So did a representative at the Rupert Murdoch-run News Corp. in New York, which owns MySpace.

When the agreement was announced, MySpace's chief security officer, Hemanshu Nigam, acknowledged in a statement that "existing age verification and identity products are not an effective safety tool for social networking sites."

MySpace, though, is not necessarily liable for those shortcomings.

A federal judge in Texas last year threw out a $30 million lawsuit filed against MySpace by the mother of a teen allegedly assaulted by a man the child had met on the site.

The 13-year-old girl had lied about her age, claiming to be 18, when setting up her profile. A 19-year-old college freshman who contacted her was later accused of sexually assaulting her.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that MySpace could not be blamed for failing to confirm the age of every site user. That, he wrote, would "stop MySpace's business in its tracks and close this avenue of communication, which Congress ... has decided to protect."

MySpace is hardly the only online collision zone for teens and predators. Court files are fat with sex-abuse cases arising from chat rooms, instant-messaging services, and other social networking sites, such as Facebook and Xanga.

But MySpace, founded 4 { years ago, is by far the largest, so it was targeted by law enforcement officials.

Nigam, its security chief, said MySpace, with the support of the attorneys general, would form an industry-wide task force to seek a solution.

Corbett and other attorneys general have suggested charging nominal fees to set up MySpace sites, payable by credit card. That would enable parents to give their teen permission to create the site, or at least spot the charge on their bill if the youth secretly used their credit card.

Milgram said that a database of Social Security numbers had been suggested, but that privacy concerns had arisen.

Still others have lobbied for raising the minimum MySpace age to 16 and using a driver's license for verification.

The MySpace task force would be given a year to show some results, Milgram said, or "we will have to take additional measures."

Currently, MySpace sites are free, and a subscriber must provide only a valid e-mail address. Profiles typically list a user's age, town or state, sexual orientation, marital status, and other personal information, along with photos, diaries, and comments posted by other users the subscriber has approved as "friends."

A user can set his or her site as public _ viewable by anyone _ or private, allowing only "friends" to have access to most contents. Public sites are easy marks for predators, said Fred Harran, public safety director in Bensalem, where police have used the Internet extensively in criminal investigations.

"In a chat room, you have to start conversations and get people to open up," Harran said. "If you start searching blog entries on MySpace, you can see the kids who are depressed, who have family problems and would be more vulnerable. It helps predators target them more quickly."

The agreement, among other things, would designate all under-16 profiles as "private," which would also become the default setting for sites created by 16- and 17-year-olds.

Adult users could not acquire an under-16 "friend" without first knowing the child's last name or e-mail address. Users younger than 18 could block all adults from contacting them, and adult users could not browse MySpace for any minors.

Such restrictions might have prevented two Philadelphia-area MySpace cases that made headlines recently.

This month, Christopher Leasher, 24, pleaded guilty in Bucks County Court to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl he had met on MySpace. Police said Leasher drugged and had sex with the girl in a Doylestown house last summer.

Also this month, Joshua Ulrich, 30, a special-education teacher at South Philadelphia High School, was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old female student he had met on MySpace.

In neither case, police said, had the accused or the victim misrepresented his or her age on MySpace.

Another provision of the agreement allows parents to submit their child's e-mail address to a registry, preventing it from being used to create a MySpace page. But critics say many kids, without their parents' knowledge, obtain multiple e-mail addresses available for free through AOL, Yahoo and other sites.

MySpace has also cooperated with authorities by identifying and removing nearly 30,000 profiles created by sex offenders.

Police say the best security of all is a vigilant parent _ one who knows a child's passwords, monitors his online friends and activities, and keeps the computer in a public area of the home. Some even buy spyware that can record their kids' online conversations and Web visits.

"A lot of parents don't want to do that because they don't want to invade their kids' privacy," said Montgomery County (Pa.) Detective Ray Kuter, an Internet-crime expert. "I say, `You are the parent. You need to decide what to do.'"

"Parents," Kuter said, "are the best monitoring program we know of."


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