MySpace Makes Offer on Offender Database

During the four years that Missouri teen Sean Hornbeck was abducted, he was sometimes able to visit social networking sites. Could a database like the one donated by social networking giant MySpace today have helped speed Hornbeck’s return, or kept him safe? Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), told he believes so.

Allen’s observation come in response to an announcement that News Corp.-owned MySpace would donate its Sentinel Safe Database to the NCMEC. The database contains background information and identifying images of 550,000 convicted predators.

Unveiled last month as a way to filter convicted offenders from younger MySpace members, the database combines the records of individual state registries, plus allows searches based on images, which the NCMEC said is important.

Although the Center employs a number of other public databases, until now, searches were limited to name, zipcode or registry number. The Sentinel Safe Database allows investigators to search based on facial characteristics, tattoos or other visible clues.

Allen said video tapes of lost or missing children can also be compared against the offender database.

“We’ve not had any technology prior to this to identify sex offenders,” Donna Rice Hughes, head of Enough is Enough, a Internet child advocacy group, told Hughes said predators easily change e-mail addresses and names.

Such enhanced abilities come at the nick of time, as far as many in the NCMEC are concerned. After passage of the Adam Walsh Act, which increased the registration requirements of convicted offenders, the organization became the information hub for state and federal law enforcement seeking offenders.

Why is MySpace donating the database, along with launching a series of other initiatives aimed at online safety?

“They realize they have corporate responsibility,” noted Hughes. In December, Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace’s Chief Security Officer, said the site was committed to barring predators.

The move is just the latest by the popular teen hangout stung by criticism it can’t protect its youngest users.

Earlier this month, four families whose teen daughters were assaulted by adults met on the social networking site, sued MySpace.

MySpace last month announced it would also begin 24-hour monitoring, including deleting offenders discovered by the database.

In a statement, Nigam said “it’s critical we work together” to reduce online safety risks.

Hughes, who has described social networking sites as a “predator’s dream come true,” said she is encouraged by MySpace’s recent announcements centered on child safety. MySpace announced it plans monitoring software codenamed “Zephyr,” which enables parents to know whether children are using their correct age and name on the site.

Although Rice Hughes still advises parents to actively monitor what their children do online, news such as today’s database donation have helped to soften her perception of MySpace.

MySpace last week teamed up with NCMEC to display Amber Alerts of missing children to users. The service also unveiled an expanded “over/under” access-blocking feature for adults. Previously, blocking was available only to members under 18, a situation prompting users to falsify their age.

The spate changes are more than good PR, Rice Hughes added. “It’s not only good for MySpace, but social networking at large.”

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