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(Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
(Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Can social media ever be made safe from sex predators? Add to ...

Facebook’s software likewise depends on relationship analysis and archives of real chats that preceded sex assaults, Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan told Reuters in the company’s most expansive comments on the subject to date.

Like most of its peers, Facebook generally avoids discussing its safety practices to discourage scare stories, because it doesn’t catch many wrongdoers, and to sidestep privacy concerns. Users could be unnerved about the extent to which their conversations are reviewed, at least by computer programs.

In part because of its massive size, Facebook relies more than some rivals on such technology.

“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,” he 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, 10 others get through the system,” Florida’s Special Agent Duncan said of tips from Facebook and other companies.

Another pillar in Facebook’s strategy is to limit how those under 18 can interact on the site and to make it harder for adults to find them. Minors don’t show up in public searches, only friends of friends can send them Facebook messages, and only friends can chat with them.

The gaping hole in the defense of Facebook and many other sites popular with teens is that minors can easily make up a birth date and pretend to be adults – and adults can pretend to be minors, as happened with Skout, which declined an interview request.

Technology is available for verifying the ages of Web and app users. One of the providers is Aristotle International Inc, which offers a variety of methods, including having a parent vouch for a child and make a token payment with a credit card to establish the parent’s identity.

Yet even in the wake of the Skout disaster, no site aimed at minors has hired Aristotle for age checks. “We could do real parental consent with 14-year-olds, but no one has asked,” said Aristotle Chief Executive John Phillips.

Such checks would cost money and alienate teens who don’t want their parents involved.

Barring a wave of costly litigation or new laws, it is hard to see the protections getting much tougher, experts said. Instead, the app and location booms will only add to the market pressure for more freedom on youth sites and greater challenges for parents.

“For every Skout that shuts down, there are 10 more that popped up yesterday,” said the FBI’s Ms. Donahue. “The free market pushes towards permissiveness.”

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