by Kristin Burnham

Facebook Plays Big Brother, Monitors Chats and Posts

Jul 13, 20123 mins
FacebookSocial Networking Apps

A Reuters article reveals that Facebook uses specially designed software to monitor all conversations for criminal activity. Is this a breach of privacy or necessary for your safety?

You may go to great lengths to ensure your Facebook page is private. And while you can control who views your profile or photos, among other things, you can’t control the technology that’s monitoring your wall posts, chats and messages.

A Reuters article from yesterday reports that Facebook is using a little-known technology to scan your posts and chats for criminal activity.

According to the story, Facebook’s software looks for phrases found in previously obtained chat records from criminals to determine whether more action should be taken. From the article:

“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 software then flagged the exchange, and Facebook employees called the 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.”

In addition to scanning for key phrases, the software also takes into account weak relationships. For example, it pays special attention if two users aren’t friends, have only recently become friends, have no mutual friends, rarely interact with each other, have a large gap in age or are located far from each other.

Then, if something is suspected, the technology automatically flags the conversations for employees, who read it and judge whether to call police.

News of Facebook’s monitoring software is bound to irk privacy-sensitive users. But Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan promises that the technology is safe, and that Facebook employees are not misusing it.

“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 told Reuters.

And while that will be reassuring to some, it’s likely not enough for others. But if Facebook is policing for the greater good—in this instance, criminal activity—does that make it more acceptable?

Facebook has evolved from a site for college students to keep in touch to a behemoth of a social network, impacting everything from the news we read to the shows we watch to the products we buy. And as this evolution has progressed, so have—I think—users’ expectations about privacy. Facebook isn’t all that private, and we really shouldn’t treat it like it is.

How do you feel about Facebook using software to monitor chats, wall posts and messages? Have you changed the way you look at privacy and interact with others on the site? Let me know in the comments section below.