October 23, 2009, 6:10 AM — A German man has reportedly been arrested after crawling several popular German social-networking sites for data and then allegedly trying to extort the site's operators.
The unidentified 20-year-old man from Erlangen, Germany, was arrested Sunday on extortion charges after building a crawler that trawled StudiVZ, a site operated by VZ Networks, a company spokesman said Friday. The crawler was able to circumvent the sites' security mechanism and automatically download users' publicly available information including their name, school, sex, age, and profile photo, company spokesman Dirk Hensen confirmed in an e-mail message.
The VZ hacker did not access any sensitive information that is typically unavailable to other users, including information such as phone numbers or mailing and e-mail addresses, VZ Networks said.
Hensen declined to offer further details on the alleged crime, but according to published reports, the man threatened to sell data belonging to users of VZ Networks' sites unless he was paid €80,000 (US$120,000).
Founded in 2005, VZ Networks operates three German-language social-networking sites that are similar to Facebook: SchulerVZ, StudiVZ and MeinVZ. It claims more than 15 million users. StudiVZ, a site for students, was sued by Facebook last year. Facebook claims that the site copies its look and feel.
VZ first alerted users to the problem on Friday.
According to Welt Online the criminals obtained information on more than 1 million users.
In an April 22 YouTube video, a 20-year-old user named matt56444 demonstrated a similar tool, saying he was able to download information on 48,000 users in about four hours.
VZ Networks has now increased security to prevent this type of automatic data-collecting, the company said.