Linda Deutsch, AP
Published: Tuesday, February 27, 2007Two New York men accused of trying to extort $150,000 from MySpace.com by developing code that tracked visitors pleaded no contest Monday to illegal computer access in a bargain with the prosecution.
Two counts of attempted extortion and another illegal computer access count were dropped in the deal, which gave the defendants three years probation. Each had faced up to nearly four years in prison.
Shaun Harrison, 19, and Saverio Mondelli, 20, of Suffolk County, N.Y., were accused of demanding the money as a "consulting fee" from the News Corp. subsidiary. The pair were offering the code on their own Web site for $29.95 and claimed to be developing an unbreakable version. MySpace had blocked the existing version after it was discovered.
The popular MySpace social-networking site — where people create elaborate profiles and personalize them with photos, music and video — is supposed to offer anonymity to visitors who browse the pages.
But Harrison and Mondelli's program collected e-mail addresses and Internet Protocol addresses, prosecutors said. Such information could have been used by stalkers trying to locate MySpace users, said Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey A. McGrath.
The men sold access to several versions of the code to computer users, who could then apply it to their own MySpace profiles. That type of traffic monitoring violates MySpace's rules.
The men boasted they had around 85,000 registered users of their tracking program, but investigators have not determined how much information users were able to cull, McGrath said.
The plea bargain, also agreed to by Paul L. Gabbert, attorney for the young men, severely restricts their access to computers, limits them to one e-mail address each, and requires they do 160 hours of community service and pay MySpace $13,500 in restitution.
Superior Court Commissioner Kristi Lousteau told the defendants that if they violate their agreement they could go to prison. She said they will be subject to search of their computers at any time and they may not access MySpace.com directly or indirectly.
The defendants stood before the commissioner and acknowledged the terms of the agreement, but neither spoke other than to answer "yes."
Outside court, Gabbert said that the agreement came from "the recognition that they are young and made a mistake and to give them a second chance."
He said they set up their business right out of high school, are going to college and "they will continue to be creative and not transgress the law."
McGrath said the young men, who were extremely proficient in the Web multimedia program Flash, were discovered by the operators of MySpace and were sent a "cease and desist" order by e-mail.
The pair sent a reply saying, "We will neither cease nor desist" and announced on their Web site that they were developing an even more sophisticated system that would soon be for sale, prosecutors said.
The problem for MySpace was that the pair's identities were not known because they were operating under pseudonyms.
The prosecution said the company then began "quasi negotiations" with the two. They were arrested last May when they flew to Los Angeles to collect the $150,000 but actually met with undercover Secret Service and district attorney's investigators, prosecutors said.
Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for MySpace, said the site is committed to protecting users.
"We are pleased with outcome of this case and hope that it sends a message to anyone thinking about causing harm to the MySpace community," Nigam said in an e-mail statement.
McGrath said there are other companies offering similar services on the Internet and that MySpace is constantly trying to shut them down.