MySpace users struggle to overcome cybervandalism

Continuing security problems threaten to spoil many of the innovative features that make the site useful

Another moderator who runs a group concerning religion created a tool to "unpin" offensive topics. He said he has had sporadic contact with MySpace security officials but not been satisfied. "This admin has made a ton of empty promises," he said. "I feel like they're not doing anything to try and halt this harassment problem."

That moderator said he's created a fifth group profile now after hackers found a way to delete his other ones. He too fears harassment outside MySpace: "I don't include any friends or family on my site for their safety."

An unofficial group for followers of the US Democratic Party has been hard hit, according to its moderator, who also did not want to be identified. Moving to another social networking platform isn't an option: "We already have a group of over 80,000 members," he said. "There's been such an investment in building this group up, I'd have a hard time just ditching it to start a new one."

MySpace often relies heavily on users to do the heavy lifting in reporting abusive material, said Caroline Dangson, research analyst for new media and entertainment at IDC.

"So far, we have seen MySpace do very little to address the issues of trolling," Dangson said. "Ultimately, it is in MySpace's best interest to find or develop technology that will block this type of abuse, or the social networking site will eventually lose users, maybe even groups of users, as well as advertisers who pay the bills."

The group moderators have several security suggestions for MySpace: First, fix the glitches. Second, implement flooding controls, which would limit the number of postings a person can make within a specific time period. Scott-Walton said he has also found another problem involving PHP scripts that could potentially be used to track users to a geographic region or exploit security vulnerabilities on a PC.

As far as the trolls, a few of the MySpace miscreants haven't done much to stay anonymous. The MySpace Democrats' moderator said he filed a report with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation about a month ago after tracing the attacks to a quite surprising perpetrator: a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. Since then, the attacks have subsided, he said.

Another well-known troll has spammed naked photos of himself on profiles, while consistently posting video rants against those who cross him on YouTube. "It's pathetic, really," the MySpace Democrats moderator said. "You really have to wonder about the sanity of a guy who would troll with naked pictures of himself."

There was success in stopping one prolific troll known as "The Punisher" after the teenager left too many bits of personal information scattered around the Internet, said Chris Boyd, security research manager for Facetime Communications, who has extensively researched MySpace abuses. A call to the youth's high school principal prompted the attacks to stop, Boyd said.

MySpace spokeswoman Jamie Schumacher said the company would not grant interviews concerning the security issues discussed in this story.

However, a document from a recent court case where MySpace sued a company for spamming peoples' profiles give some insight into the evolution of its security department.

The case, which went to arbitration, was settled last month. Scott Richter of Westminster, Colorado, was ordered to pay MySpace $4.8 million in damages and US$1.2 million in legal fees in relation to an August 2006 spam campaign. Richter was accused of using compromised MySpace accounts to send unsolicited "bulletins" to thousands of MySpace users.

According to a document signed June 12 by arbiter Philip W. Boesch, MySpace as recently as two years ago "only employed two relatively junior staff employees to deal with the [spam] issues throughout the entire network."

Since then, the security staff has been increased to 30 or 40 employees, Boesch wrote. MySpace has also hired high-power leadership in April 2006. The site's chief security officer, Hemanshu Nigam, is a former computer crimes prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice.

All of the spam, trolling and other cybervandalism are against the MySpace's "Terms of Use Agreement." But during the Richter trial, MySpace's director of security and enforcement, E. J. Hilbert, highlighted problems in enforcing the document.

"As Mr. Hilbert testified, nobody reads it," Boesch wrote.

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