An editor at Wired magazine, Kevin Poulsen, has done some remarkable programming aimed at uncovering registered sex offenders on MySpace, a popular social networking website. Poulsen wrote a series of programs that gather data from various sex-offender databases, cull MySpace for potential matches, and then help automate the confirmation or rejection of the matches. After generating his list, he found one sex offender who was so obviously engaging in predatory behavior that New York’s Suffolk County Police Department was able to arrest him. It must be noted that Poulsen’s search returned many false positives and works only if sex offenders use their real names and addresses, something that they are not truly compelled to do by social networking sites. Automatically searching for sex offenders and compiling the results raises several questions: Is this use of the data acceptable? What responsibility do social networking sites have, given the availability of these data? And what can parents do to protect their children without invading their privacy?
This use of the data online appears to be in line with the purpose of Megan’s Law, one of which (according to the KlaasKids foundation) is to "offers citizens information they can use to protect children from victimization." Although discussion of Megan’s Law generally arises in the context of communities protecting their children from local offenders, the web complicates what we mean by "community"; the web allows strangers on different continents to interact in real time and offers predators private access to otherwise well-watched youth. Thus, extending the law to cover online communities, that is, by allowing parents, online community managers, and law enforcement to use state databases to determine when known sex offenders join these communities, only makes sense.
Given the technical challenges of using Poulsen’s script (it is, by his own admission, not user friendly) and the problems with the data it returns (false positives, reliance on accurate registration information), what are parents to do? Honestly, nothing new. Parents should continue to be involved in the lives of their children. They should ask their children to share their web activities with them, ask their children about their friends (both online and off), and ensure that their children know that they always have people to turn to if they’re in danger. They should work to ensure that their children know what a bad situation is (e.g., a stranger asks them to meet him somewhere) and how to handle one. Obviously, blacklisting sexual offenders from social networking sites would reduce the number of potential sexual offenders on these sites; however, it would not eliminate the risk. There is no technological substitute for active and involved parenting.