Facebook scans chats and posts for criminal activity

Facebook's monitoring software focuses on conversations between members who have a loose relationship on the social network.

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Facebook has added sleuthing to its array of data-mining capabilities, scanning your posts and chats for criminal activity. If the social-networking giant detects suspicious behavior, it flags the content and determines if further steps, such as informing the police, are required.

The new tidbit about the company's monitoring system comes from a Reuters interview with Facebook Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan. Here's the lead-in to the Reuters story:

A man in his early 30s was chatting about sex with a 13-year-old South Florida girl and planned to meet her after middle-school classes the next day. Facebook's extensive but little-discussed technology for scanning postings and chats for criminal activity automatically flagged the conversation for employees, who read it and quickly called police. Officers took control of the teenager's computer and arrested the man the next day.

Facebook's software focuses on conversations between members who have a loose relationship on the social network. For example, if two users aren't friends, only recently became friends, have no mutual friends, interact with each other very little, have a significant age difference, and/or are located far from each other, the tool pays particular attention.

The scanning program looks for certain phrases found in previously obtained chat records from criminals, including sexual predators (because of the Reuters story, we know of at least one alleged child predator who is being brought before the courts as a direct result of Facebook's chat scanning). The relationship analysis and phrase material have to add up before a Facebook employee actually looks at communications and makes the final decision of whether to ping the authorities.

"We've never wanted to set up an environment where we have employees looking at private communications, so it's really important that we use technology that has a very low false-positive rate," Sullivan told Reuters. While details of the tool are still scarce, it's a well-known fact that Facebook cooperates with the police, since, like any company, it has to abide by the law. In fact, just a few months ago, Facebook complied with a police subpoena by sending over 62 pages of photos, Wall posts, messages, contacts, and past activity on the site for a murder suspect.

For more information about Facebook's stance on working with the police, I checked out these two pages: Law Enforcement and Third-Party Matters, as well as Information for Law Enforcement Authorities. It's worth noting that neither of these documents discusses the aforementioned tool (a quick search for the words "monitor" and "scan" bring up nothing).

Facebook likely wants to avoid discussing the existence of the monitoring technology in order to avoid further privacy concerns. Many users don't like the idea of having their conversations reviewed, even if it's done by software and rarely by Facebook employees.

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