Kevin Poulsen is a senior editor at Wired News where he has covered MySpace, computer security, and blogging, among other topics. Poulsen joined Wired News in May 2005 after five years as the editorial director of SecurityFocus, a Web-based computer security publication. Prior to that, he freelanced for Wired magazine and several Ziff Davis publications and was a columnist for TechTV. In his teens and early twenties he was a hacker.
Liz Cox Barrett: Before we get to your current Wired piece — “MySpace Predator Caught By Code” — can you talk about your transition from hacker to reporter (including how you arrived at your hacker handle, Dark Dante)?
Kevin Poulsen: Well, I was 16. That was a long time ago. I couldn’t tell you how I arrived at that name.
LCB: So, the transition from hacker to reporter?
KP: When I got out of jail, I was restricted from using computers for a time and I’d always had an interest in writing …
LCB: Can you explain how you landed in jail? CNN described it this way: “Dark Dante … served time in prison for his misdeeds, including commandeering the phone lines of a radio station to guarantee he was the caller who would win a Porsche.” Does that about sum it up?
KP: I was a phone hacker … At one point I used that access to cheat a radio phone-in contest. There was a Porsche and trips to Hawaii and lots of cash.
LCB: How old were you at that time?
KP: It all ended when I was in my early 20s.
LCB: Back to your transition from hacking to journalism.
KP: Right. For a time I was not allowed to use computers, which was my only other skill [besides writing]. I wound up taking a columnist gig with the Web site of what was called at the time ZDTV, later called Tech TV. Then I went from that to doing freelancing at Wired and some Ziff Davis publications. By that time I was allowed to use computers. I joined the staff of a start-up company called SecurityFocus, which was a computer security publication on the Web. I was the editorial director for five years…. I returned to freelancing and two months later started here at Wired.
LCB: Are the two pursuits (hacking and reporting) as different as they seem at first blush? Which skills have been transferable?
KP: I think there’s some overlap in that the prime mover in hacking is curiosity and inquisitiveness and asking questions, basically, in one form or another, which is also the essence of journalism.
LCB: On to your Wired story. In a nutshell, you wrote an automated script that searched MySpace profiles for registered sex offenders. You located several hundred offenders but focused on one guy who was actively corresponding with young teens. You tried to contact the guy and some of the teens he was talking to and no one responded. You contacted the Suffolk County Police Department, shared this information, their computer crime unit opened an investigation and you agreed to hold your story until that investigation was complete. In the end, the guy served jail time.
KP: He’s in jail now but they wound up, because of a New York State Appellate Court decision, being able to charge him only with a misdemeanor, so his maximum sentence is 90 days.
LCB: So what was the genesis of this story? What was your plan at the start, your intention for it?
KP: We ran a story in April by a freelancer named Jenn Shreve, where she reported that by typing in a bunch of names from California’s sex offenders registry at random on MySpace she found seven registered sex offenders. There wasn’t much more to it than that. It begged the question, if you were to do something more thorough and systematic how many could you find? And more importantly what would they wind up being up to, if anything? What are they doing on MySpace?
So the National Sex Offender Registry run by the Department of Justice is a perfect tool for doing this kind of analysis. There are fifty different sex registry Web sites, each state has one, they all use different formats and catalog and produce different kinds of data but the DOJ site knows how to talk to all of them and presents you with some information in … a uniform manner. I wrote a program that went through the DOJ site and ran every zip code basically, moving across the country from east to west.
LCB: What did you envision as the end result?