Facebook Knows What You are Talking About in Private

Facebook is pretty much ubiquitous these days. Just about everyone uses it to keep up to date on their friends’ milestones and minutia, birthdays, and preference in cat videos. But did you know that (beyond the obvious ‘using your info for advertising purposes’ thing) Facebook is keeping up to date on your private conversations?

No, this isn’t just some crackpot ‘Big Brother is watching you’-type theory. It’s for real. Facebook has admitted it… very quietly.

The technology was allegedly designed to help Facebook aid law enforcement in catching sexual predators – a noble and important cause, for sure. And, in fact, it has. Facebook has been credited with helping catch at least one sexual predator.

The software is pretty simple: it starts by scanning all communications (including private messages) and monitoring them for certain words and phrases, cross-checking with data from users’ profiles to determine whether a conversation is inappropriate enough to be ‘flagged’. This means that a conversation occurring between a minor and an adult would be more likely to be flagged. Profiles that are new on the site also draw more attention.

If a conversation is ‘flagged’, it is then read by a Facebook employee, who determines whether it appears to be a threat. From there, police could be called if it looks like a sexual predator soliciting a minor.

Obviously you shouldn’t have too great of an expectation of privacy when you’re dealing with a company like Facebook, which makes its money by exchanging its services for your information. But is the practice of quietly looking through users’ private messages for evidence of ‘illegal activity’ an ethical one, given how easily it could be abused?

Does the purpose (catching sexual predators) justify the practice (using software to snoop through users’ private communications)? Is Facebook obligated to do more to make users aware of their use of this software (beyond just sticking it in the TOS)? Discuss in the comments!

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2 Responses to Facebook Knows What You are Talking About in Private

  1. Can we get a link to where they admitted this?

    • Charlotte Hannah
      Charlotte Hannah says:

      http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/12/us-usa-internet-predators-idUSBRE86B05G20120712

      Here is an article about it. There are others out there; I can find a few more if you’re interested.

      Under the heading ‘Catching One in 10?’, Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan explains that, “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.”

      So I guess the question is whether you can trust that statement, given the fact that Facebook is known to be somewhat ethically dubious.