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July 13, 2012

'To Catch a Predator': Facebook Implements Software to Monitor Suspicious Chat

By Brooke Neuman, TMCnet Copy Editor

More often than not, Facebook (News - Alert) users post comments or pictures that leave us saying “What in the world were they thinking!” Although Facebook gave users the ability to edit comments, they unfortunately can’t monitor stupidity.

But the social network giant just announced new scanning software that monitors words or phrases alluding to suspicious activity during chats.

With Facebook continuously in the spotlight, you might be wondering why we haven’t heard about this useful software until now. Unfortunately, the answer is troubling. Earlier in March, a man in his 30s was chatting with a 13-year old girl on Facebook and later planned to meet her after school. The conversation was flagged and Facebook employees were notified. After notifying police of the suspicious chat, police confiscated the young girl’s computer and arrested the alleged predator.

So what exactly is it looking for? The scanning software pays close attention to users whose profiles look suspicious – a user that has discrepancies within his/her profile, for instance, such as inappropriate relationships or posted comments and “friends” that have large age gaps. This kind of profile is often seen with sexual predators.

The “smart” software is programmed to flag specific phrases that were found in chat records of former criminals, including sexual predators. If and when the software scans a suspicious conversation or phrase, it notifies Facebook’s security employees. The employees then determine if the police should be involved.

To further protect minors from sexual predators, Facebook users under the age of 18 do not show up in public searches; only a “friend” of a “friend” can send under age users a message and users can only chat with their “friends.”

Although the software is a positive and necessary step in protecting under age users from sexual predators, some are concerned about privacy.

“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,” said Joe Sullivan, chief security officer at Facebook.

Facebook officials claim the firm does not heavily monitor conversations that they believe are “pre-existing” relationships, in an effort to curb false positives and protect user privacy.

Today, youth is born and raised on technology. With this comes the responsibility that we as a society have to protect them. Facebook has made a great and much appreciated effort in doing so.

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Edited by Braden Becker
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