To Catch a Predator
New tools to save the Web from sexual miscreants are the latest weapons in one coder’s fight against mainstream culture
Meitar “Maymay” Moscovitz, once a rent-paying San Franciscan who has literally written books on web development, identifies with the personal pronoun they. They could easily take a six-figure salary writing code for a VC-backed start-up. But they don’t want to. “Because tech,” they say, twirling a finger lamely in the air.
Maymay has spent the last two years couch-surfing and building free, open-source tools that they believe help people avoid bad guys while socializing on Facebook and Twitter or when organizing a date on OkCupid. “A lot of these sites have made architectural choices about what information they make easy, or not easy, to find,” Maymay says. And they take issue with those decisions. Specifically, Maymay thinks it should be easier to identify unsavory characters online.
Maymay and their collaborators are developing a suite of tools that purport to make your experience online safer, among other things. By building add-ons to social networking sites that fix what they view as unethical or unappealing features of the sites, they seek to wrest back control of the Web. And they don’t only focus on sexual predators. Want to brag more easily about your attendance at bondage and fetish-themed events? Maymay has the widget for you. Wish you had more control over the way you use sites such as Wordpress and Tumblr? Maymay’s got your back.
As they write on their personal web site, “In short, I’m an autonomy activist, gender anarchist, prickly cyborg, and homeless hacker recovering from an IT career. I hate businesses and business ideas. I love building toolkits for culture hacking. I get DMCA’d a lot, and I enjoy it.”
Fitting for a provocateur such as Maymay, the tools they develop are intended to spark discussion. At the same time they acknowledge that software will never completely solve the ill-fitting transition of real-world social problems to the Web. But it’s a start.
Maymay spent much of last year developing their suite of Predator Alert Tools (PAT). The Facebook application allows users to anonymously (or not) document negative encounters with another user. If a new friend request raises an alarm, you can use the tool to search for the person’s name and see if any bad incidents are attached to the profile. According to Maymay’s dashboard, though, the Facebook PAT has only been installed about 2,000 times.
The add-on for OkCupid takes a slightly different approach, and according to Maymay it has seen considerably more success. Users can mark questions in OkCupid’s questionnaire they deem worrisome, such as how a person feels about forceful sex—Maymay contends that many predators answer honestly, not believing it’s a red flag. Prospective matches who answer in concerning ways get flagged. The tool also compares users’ profile pictures to images in the US Sex Offender Registry using CreepShield’s facial recognition API. As users peruse OkCupid, the tool displays the likelihood that a potential match is in the registry and provides a link to additional information. Due to some technical changes Maymay stopped monitoring installations of the OkCupid tool last year, but at the time downloads were around 20,000.
OKCupid did not respond to a request for comment. When I asked Facebook to discuss their measures for preventing sexual predators a spokesperson replied that “We try to respond quickly to remove language from the site that violates our terms, and we try to make it very easy for people to report questionable content using links located throughout the site.”
Maymay’s projects are not the only tools available for identifying potential sexual predators. Services such as Creepshield already allow users to install a browser extension that will search photos of suspected offenders for matches in the site’s database. The Department of Justice provides a searchable sex offender registry for every state — though I searched for sex offenders in my California zip code three times and each attempt just spun without results, as did my searches on independent sites such as Family Watchdog.
Maymay argues that these sites all fail because they are not integrated into other services. Building predator search tools atop popular networks, with a way to know with confidence you’re discussing the same person, is the most effective way to make the web a safer place, they say.
Each add-on Maymay and the open-source community have built “doesn’t try to be a siloed repository somewhere else — it puts the information at the point of need.”
Reporting through the tool is anonymous, which makes sense given the delicacy of many situations. Yet the tool did seem extremely hard to patrol for trolls and liars. Because story submitters can keep their identity hidden, a malicious user could easily exploit the tool to smear another person. The app allows users to follow up with the story submitter, but often the damage is already done.
Maymay and their main collaborator on the tools, Rebecca Crane, contend that sorting fact from fiction was never a goal. “The only thing PAT-Facebook can do is technologically distribute information. It is not capable of vetting that information, nor is it our prerogative as developers of the tool to do so,” Crane says. The hope is that someone who’s already put their trust in the tool will make the effort to double check it.
I get to know Maymay over Skype from Crane’s living room in Oklahoma. She’s letting Maymay crash for a while. They get by on donations from the free blogging software they develop — enough to cover a cup of coffee. But they depend on friends to keep a pillow under their head.
Before opting to become homeless, Maymay spent years helping Fortune 500 companies with their web infrastructure and search engine optimization. But in 2007 they left that “detour” to become a freelance developer. They warn recruiters that “[i]f your project so much as pretends to have a profit motive, I will tell you to go fuck yourself and your project.” So their work relies on donation-based open-source software.
Online Maymay openly discusses rape, gender, sex and other social issues. They write impassioned Facebook posts. They don’t shy away from a Twitter argument. Recent entries on Maymay’s blog cover a range of emotions and topics, from calling someone a “shitstain” because of a disagreement over a BDSM definition and enumerating the “8 identities of white people” to offering critiques of papers examining sexual assault.
Over Skype Maymay speaks with as much passion as in their writing, and with the same impatience for topics they deem to have obvious answers. They tell me about a childhood diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Rather than hide from the label, Maymay launched a forum for others to ask them questions or discuss with others. This is someone who cares, but who doesn’t care if others agree with how they care.
Such subject matter tends to be blood in the water for the class of netizens you might term “social justice trolls.” These online crusaders, brought out of the shadows during such controversies as #Gamergate, tend to gang up on non-heterosexual non-males with opinions they find disagreeable. Yet digging up embarrassing or private information on Maymay to blast across the Web — a practice called doxxing — isn’t easy. Even their LinkedIn profile points to a blog about sex and BDSM practices. “It has naked pics,” they note. “Feel free to masturbate to me.” After debating on Twitter whether doxxing Maymay would be poetic justice, someone who goes by Dr Zeus reached the conclusion that nothing could be done about Maymay: “This twat is sufficiently transparent that doxxing is useless.”
It’s exactly that kind of transparency that’s missing from the corporations controlling the Web, and Maymay believes that people too often forget that companies’ interests are not always aligned with those of their users. The services want users to stay focused on doing things that will drive the bottom line. Crane, who writes technical copy for the products and is instrumental in their design, offers a more blunt explanation: “They don’t want their users coming on a dating site and thinking about getting raped.”
But the two collaborators recognize that solving the issue of negative interactions on complicated digital networks takes a lot more than a few handy tools. “The biggest part is showing this is possible,” Rebecca says, “and getting people talking about different ways that might happen.”
Maymay agrees. As they say, “It’s a form of collective action.”