On March 9 of this year, a piece of Facebook software spotted something suspicious.
A man in his early thirties 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, said Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The alleged predator has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of soliciting a minor.
Duncan, one of a half-dozen law enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering inquiries, said: ‘The manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to respond as soon as possible.’
But the measures – while proving of utmost importance in a situation like this – does raise big privacy concerns in the debate about how much of our data we should entrust in these big companies.
Facebook is among the many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and human monitoring to thwart sex predators. Such efforts generally start with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted pedophiles’ online chats to teach the software what to seek out.
Facebook’s software likewise depends on relationship analysis and archives of real chats that preceded sex assaults, Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan told Reuters in the company’s most expansive comments on the subject to date.