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Social networks scan for sexual predators

A piece of Facebook software spotted something suspicious.

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Facebook,sexual predators,Social networks scan for sexual predators
World


SAN FRANCISCO - On 9 March 2012, a piece of Facebook software spotted something suspicious.

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 extensive but little discussed technology for scanning postings and chats for criminal activity automatically flagged the conversation for employees, who read it and quickly called 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 pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of soliciting a minor.

"The manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to respond as soon as possible," said Duncan, one of a half dozen law enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering inquiries.

Facebook is among the many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and human monitoring to thwart sex predators.

Such efforts generally start with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted paedophiles’ online chats to teach the software what to seek out.

Yet even though defensive techniques are now available and effective they can be expensive.

They can also alienate some of a site's target audience, especially teen users who expect more freedom of expression.

While many top sites catering to young children are quite vigilant, the same can't be said for the burgeoning array of online options for the 13 - to 18-year-old set.

"There are companies out there that are doing a very good job, working within the confines of what they have available," said Brooke Donahue, a supervisory special agent with an FBI team devoted to Internet predators and child pornography.

"There are companies out there that are more concerned about profitability."

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