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Facebook scans chats and comments looking for criminal behavior

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Detailed in an article published by Reuters earlier today, Facebook employees notified law enforcement in South Florida after internal scanning software detected a suspicious conversation of a sexual nature between a 13-year-old girl and a man in his early thirties. When the software flags a conversation that could lead to criminal behavior, Facebook employees are notified and required to review the chat log or series of comments. If the conversation is deemed as seriously inappropriate and potentially criminal, Facebook employees notify local law enforcement.

Facebook PrisonFor instance, the conversation in South Florida likely contained an exchange of sexual comments in addition to personal information such as a home address. According to Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan, police officers used the girl’s Facebook account to continue the conversation and were able to place the man under arrest within 24 hours.

Charged with multiple counts of soliciting a minor, the man in question has plead not guilty to all charges. It’s likely that Facebook provides a full transcript of the entire conversation to law enforcement officials which can be used as evidence during a potential trial.

In order to catch pedophiles before they attack, the scanning software has analyzed real chat logs of that led up to a sexual assault of a minor in order to identify common phrases and keywords according to Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan. However, Sullivan indicated that the software doesn’t scan preexisting relationships as deeply. New relationships seem to be the focus of the software’s searches.

Sullivan stated “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 didn’t indicate if the software also compares a collection of potentially suspicious conversations to check and see if a pedophile has attempted to contact multiple children on the social network.

Facebook management attempts to reduce the amount of communication between adults and minors by limiting visibility in search listings. For instance, minors aren’t listed within the Facebook search tool. In addition, only direct friends of a minor can enter into an online chat with them. However, minors can easily navigate around this barrier by lying about their age when setting up a Facebook profile. For children clearly under the age of thirteen, Facebook has setup a policy of immediate account deletion when notified about an underage user.

However, Facebook is considering lifting the ban on preteens in the future. In order to make the social network accessible for a younger audience, the company has to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This law requires online sites to get the permission of a parent before enabling account access for a child younger than thirteen. Rather than having the child setup an account and issuing an email notification to the parent, Facebook could potentially create a system where the parent authorizes the account creation prior to the child’s involvement and sends the child a link through email or a text message that allows them to signup for an approved account. Hypothetically, the parent could also be setup as a permanent friend as well as have friend approval powers until the child becomes a teenager.