How Facebook Tries (and Sort of Deliberately Fails) to Catch Pedophiles

Sexual predators have been using social media to target children and teens for years. But did you know that Facebook actually has software in place to monitor and stop it? And that it's deliberately ineffective?

Here's a striking bit about Facebook from Reuters' deep look into how social networks try to protect kids:

"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," [Facebook Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan] said. In addition, Facebook doesn't probe deeply into what it thinks are pre-existing relationships.

A low rate of false positives, though, also means that many dangerous communications go undetected.

Some adults have used Facebook to target dozens of minors before assaulting one or more and then being identified by their victims or the victims' parents, court records show.

"I feel for every one we arrest, ten others get through the system," Florida's Duncan said of tips from Facebook and other companies.

It's a real dilemma. On one hand, loudmouths like us hammer Facebook whenever privacy concerns pop up. And rightly so—Facebook and other social services hold a massive amount of our private data, and often seem to forget how violated they can make us feel. No one wants Facebook employees reading their chat transcripts if it's not necessary.

But public sentiment bends and warps when it comes to child predators, because there are genuine horrors out there. Would we be OK with Facebook reading through millions more innocent-but-idiotic cybersex transcripts between college kids or sad adults if it bumped that hypothetical figure to 5-in-10? 8-in-10? It's hard to say.

It's hard to mandate that the transcript reads wouldn't be used irresponsibly—people are generally stupid and cruel, after all—but it's just as hard to ignore that chilling estimate. Check out the rest of the story, which does feature a few wins, thankfully, at [Reuters].

Pedobear image credit: Jim Cooke at Gawker; original image from Richard Laschon/Shutterstock