MySpace, Facebook show tools to ward off child predators

At meeting of MySpace-formed task force, social networks show how kids are kept safe

MySpace is using technology to analyze whether potential users trying to sign up for the social network may be registered sex offenders, the company's chief security officer said Wednesday.

Hemanshu Nigam, who is also the CSO of Fox Interactive Media, described the new system and other measures taken by MySpace to protect children online during a meeting of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force Wednesday at Harvard University. The task force was created by MySpace as part of a January agreement with a group of state attorneys general to beef up online safety at social networking sites.

The task force is charged with exploring and developing age and identity verification tools for social networking sites.

The task force was formed after a lengthy battle between 49 (minus Texas) of the 50 US state attorneys general and MySpace over turning over the names of registered sex offenders who had accounts on MySpace. In July 2007, MySpace said it had identified more than 29,000 registered sex offenders among its users. Facebook subsequently joined the task force and agreed to work with the AGs on bolstering online safety.

Nigam noted that the company's new Sentinel technology looks at various criteria - like names and images of known sex offenders - 24 hours a day to ensure they are not using the site.

"We have proactive, zero tolerance for sex offenders," he noted.

He noted that this method of aiming to identify potential predators before they have a chance to make contact with any other MySpace user is part of its new proactive approach at online safety.

"[We] don't just do 'notice and take down', but merge it and combine it with proactive measures," Nigam added. "That should be the ultimate goal - take care of [potential problems] before you get an email, a call or a complaint."

The company also reviews videos and photos uploaded to the site for nudity, pornography or overt violence, he added. MySpace is trying to deter users from adding such content to the site by telling those posting illicit videos or images that their IP address is logged and could be used in an investigation if the content is found to be illegal.

"We are looking for teachable moments," he added. "When your are uploading images or videos, we put up a warning to let you know that other people can see what you're putting up."

Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, said via a video presentation from the meeting that one of the company's biggest advantages in the quest for online safety is that unlike MySpace, it requires that users use their real name to identity themselves on the site.

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He went on to note that users choose who can view the information on their profiles, and that only 0.1 percent of the 100 million profiles on the site are publicly available to all other users.

For users under 18 who join groups, their profile is only available to other under-18-year-old users in that group, he added. "This provides a built-in neighborhood watch program for every user on the site," Kelly noted.

Like MySpace, Facebook has an automated system aimed at detecting potentially dangerous behavior. Called Karma, the system will flag suspicious behavior like a 34-year-old user attempting to befriend a 14-year-old or 15-year-old child.

He added that 100 percent of reports from users to Facebook about nudity posted to the site or harassment complaints are reviewed with 24 hours and resolved within 72 hours. Furthermore, users who are age 13 though 17 will have their account disabled if they send friend requests to other users who cannot verify that they know the minor, he added.

Kelly pointed to a Facebook poll of 500 13 to 17-years-old users that a majority had not seen nudity on the site, that they know most or all of the people they interact with.

Simon Axten, a privacy and public policy associate at Facebook, noted from the meeting that the site allows users to report suspicious behavior, which can help catch criminals who may fall through the cracks and not get flagged by the automated systems.

"We are constantly working on these systems," he noted. "We're still approaching this problem from a technical perspective. A challenge that we have is enforcing that real name culture or getting across to users how the site is to be used. There is some inclination to use the site on a pseudonym or fake name basis."

Richard Blumenthal, AG of Connecticut and co-chair of the group of AGs who have honed in on online safety, noted that anonymity on social networks is a real concern to law enforcement. MySpace, he added, has identified 50,000 child predators who have established profiles on the site using their own names.

"For all those 50,000, there are a lot more that don't use their real names," he said. "The anonymity of the Internet is one of the greatest threats law enforcement sees to apprehending and preventing criminal assaults."

However, he commended the task force for taking on the challenge of putting into place better online child protection measures. "It is a passion that has united AGs as I have never seen before in 18 years in my office," he added. "Other than the [anti] tobacco effort there has been no other multi-state task force that has attracted so much support and interest as this one."