In news that is sure to shock nobody some information has come to light about Facebook’s method for spying on its users:
Facebook has added sleuthing to its array of data-mining capabilities, scanning your posts and chats for criminal activity. If the social-networking giant detects suspicious behavior, it flags the content and determines if further steps, such as informing the police, are required.
Facebook’s software focuses on conversations between members who have a loose relationship on the social network. For example, if two users aren’t friends, only recently became friends, have no mutual friends, interact with each other very little, have a significant age difference, and/or are located far from each other, the tool pays particular attention.
The scanning program looks for certain phrases found in previously obtained chat records from criminals, including sexual predators (because of the Reuters story, we know of at least one alleged child predator who is being brought before the courts as a direct result of Facebook’s chat scanning)
For the sake of public relations Facebook made sure to pull an “It’s for the children!” move when they let people in on their little monitoring mechanism. The story talks about an instance where a man in his early 30s tried to pick up a 13 year-old girl. See, it’s good that Facebook spys on its users, they’re protecting the children!
Anybody who is surprised by this news obviously hasn’t been paying attention to Facebook’s business model. Facebook’s customers aren’t their users, it’s their advertisers. Advertisers pay Facebook money because Facebook’s users voluntarily give up a great deal of personal information that can be used to better target ads. As their business model involves mining personal data from users so the monitoring tools are already in place. It’s trivial to include certain phrases indicating criminal behavior in their data mining system.
The golden rule of the Internet is that you shouldn’t use third-party services to do anything illegal. Whether you’re selling drugs or plotting to overthrow the Republic of Elbonia do it with encrypted communication methods that aren’t controlled by third-parties. You should probably give only information you’re comfortable with the whole world knowing to third-party services as well.