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Facebook, Other Companies Monitor Sites for Internet Sex Crimes

Your casual conversations over Facebook and other websites may be monitored for evidence of sex offenses. Using both technology and human employees, Facebook and many other companies watch their websites for signs of Internet sex crimes worldwide, including North Carolina. The results are varied.

In one instance, Facebook's software flagged a conversation between a man in his 30s and a 13-year-old girl. They were chatting about sex and planned to meet after school the next day. Employees read the flagged conversation and called police, who took control of the girl's computer and arrested the man the next day. He has been charged with soliciting a minor.

Facebook and many other companies do not generally discuss their safety practices, partly because users could be frightened off by the level at which their conversations are reviewed, at least by computer programs. Monitoring for signs of sexual predators isn't fail-proof, however, and not all companies used the strongest available technology, which can be expensive.

For example, the maker of a smartphone app called Skout recently acknowledged that its app had led to three teenagers been sexually assaulted by adults. Skout, designed for flirtation with strangers in the same area, had not confirmed that users of its teen section were under age 20.

Some companies shy away from the strongest defenses because they are expensive. Other companies do not want to alienate users who object to being monitored, such as teens who expect more freedom of expression than children. In fact, many experts say they do not believe that protections will become much tougher, because users tend to push the market toward more permissiveness.

Source: Reuters, Social networks scan for sexual predators, with uneven results, Joseph Menn, July 12, 2012.

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