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Facebook as vigilante: Scanning for predators

Gail Sredanovic of the group Raging Grannies holds a sign depicting a Facebook page as she protests outside of the Facebook headquarters June 4, 2010 in Palo Alto, California.

Jeff Horwich: Looking around for stories gaining traction this morning, we ran across a Reuters piece that delves into an aspect of Facebook most people don't know about. Turns out Facebook is going out of its way to be a partner to law enforcement.

Joseph Menn wrote the story -- he's a reporter for Reuters in San Francisco. Glad to reach you.

Joseph Menn: Good morning, how are you?

Horwich: So what exactly is Facebook doing that maybe we didn't exactly know it was doing?

Menn: Well people think that when they are doing private chats -- well people assume wall posts might be read by many people, perhaps even by the company, but it's also facebook messages and the instant messaging chat that are scanned by Facebook software. And what they are looking for is a few things, but for the purposes of my story, the thing they are most concerned about is sexual predators?

Horwich: Do we know beyond that, to what they might be looking for?

Menn: Well they are certainly looking for spam and scams and security holes that might trick you into giving up your financial log in, that sort of thing. But the thing that I think really gets people's attention is the sexual predator thing because it has come up on Myspace and AOL chat rooms. It's something that crops up in the public's consciousness from time to time. 

Horwich: Have they had any big snares, any big successes?

Menn: Yeah, they don't talk about it much at all, but they have made at least three arrests that I confirmed with police so far this year.

Horwich: So, I'm sure you could probably predict this last question -- Facebook and privacy, right? I mean, how do we know -- they are are private company right -- how do we know where they draw the line?

Menn: We don't. So, given the number of people they have on staff -- as of February it was about 70 doing all kinds of security and most of those not doing this -- there's no possible way they could be actually humanly looking at everything. So, it is up to them, it's in the terms of service. And they say they are aiming for a very low false positive rate, in part, because as the head of security told me, they want to have the equivalent of probable cause, before they go trolling through your stuff personally.

Horwich: Joseph Menn is a reporter for Reuters and also author of Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords who are Bringing Down the Internet. Good to talk with you, Joseph, thanks.

Menn: Thanks very much. 

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.
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