Facebook users be warned: The central scrutinizer is watching every word you type.
Does anyone reading this really think that Facebook chats are in any way private? Because they’re not. And not just in the sense that this stuff is stored on a server somewhere and could be hacked into any time, either; Facebook actively monitors chats between users for suspicious activity and then reports that activity to the police.
The initial screening of chats is entirely automated, carried out by software that scans for certain words or phrases used by specific types of users, such as the exchange of sexually-explicit language between users of greatly different ages. Suspicious instances are brought to the attention of Facebook security employees, who investigate further and determine if the authorities need to get involved.
The social network relies heavily on automated scans not only because of its massive size but also, according to Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan, because Facebook doesn’t actually want to intrude on its users’ 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,” he said.
A low rate of false positives probably won’t do much to mollify privacy advocates, although why anyone would assume that Facebook communications are private in the first place, particularly in light of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous dismissal of privacy in 2010, is utterly beyond me. And at least one member of the law enforcement community, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Agent Jeffrey Duncan, sees it in a completely different light. “I feel that for every one we arrest, ten others get through the system,” he said.
Facebook’s automated scanning system has directly resulted in at least one arrest thus far. A “chat about sex” between man in his 30s and a 13-year-old girl who had agreed to meet him the next day was flagged by the system, leading Facebook employees to call the police. He was arrested and charged and has since pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of soliciting a minor.