Facebook open-sources algorithms for detecting child exploitation and terrorism


A defining feature of Facebook’s approach to product development is its ruthlessness, which often manifests as a kind of shamelessness. If good taste ever dictates that Facebook stay out of a product, history shows that it’s likely to wade right in. There are, for example, all the times that the company copied Snapchat. Or there was the development of the always-listening Portal video phone, which was delayed by the onset of one privacy scandal and still managed to launch during another one.

Today, with federal agencies investigating whether the company’s tight integration between its family of products represents anti-competitive behavior, Facebook released in the United States a new service that moves to further knit them all together. It’s called Facebook Dating, and I wrote about it at The Verge:

Nearly a year after it began testing in Colombia, Facebook Dating is now available in the United States. The product, which is available to users 18 and older, will appear as a new tab within the Facebook mobile app. People who opt in to Dating can create a profile that’s separate from their main Facebook profile with one tap and meet potential romantic partners among their friends of friends — or, if that makes you uncomfortable, completely outside of your existing friend network.

Facebook says it will suggest matches for you based on preferences you express when you create your profile, along with your interests and Facebook activity. The app, which borrows many design elements from the dating app Hinge, allows you to send a “like” and a corresponding message to any profile you encounter on the service.

The most notable thing about Facebook Dating from a regulatory point of view is likely the way it takes advantage of at least five pillars of the company. (This doesn’t always work, as the New York Times reported today in a new investigation into Facebook romance scams.) It uses your Facebook friend graph and profile to find you matches and verify the authenticity of your account. It lets you find romantic partners among people who are in the same Facebook groups, or attending the same Facebook events, that you are. It encourages you coordinate your plans on Messenger.

And finally, with the US launch, Facebook Dating has added a close integration with Instagram. You can add a module of your recent Instagram photos to your dating profile, and eventually, you’ll be able to post Instagram stories there as well.

Ever since we learned in January that Facebook intends to unify its messaging products under a single banner, it has been clear that the company has been in a race against time. Its mission is to dissolve every possible boundary between WhatsApp, Instagram, and the flagship app, so that if regulators try to force them to spin those out into separate companies, they can complain that it’s simply impossible. If Facebook succeeds, there will be no real “Instagram” or “WhatsApp” to speak of — there will simply be Facebook, available in a handful of different flavors.

In any case, regulation was not the main theme in coverage of Facebook dating today. Instead the theme was, as you might expect, privacy. The company put up a separate blog post intended to address privacy concerns about Dating, but not everyone was satisfied. (Brian Menegus in Gizmodo: “Oh god. Oh no. Please do not do this.”)

And some questions about Dating went unanswered. Here’s Brian Feldman in New York:

Facebook was adamant about how a Dating profile is separate from a user’s main FB profile: Friends aren’t shown as potential matches, and you can preemptively block people. The fact that someone is using Facebook Dating is kept siloed; your Facebook life and your Facebook Dating life are supposedly separate. But under the surface, it seems as if every part of the service is integrated with Facebook’s other properties, which in turn gives Facebook more personal data to potentially target users with ads. New tactics, same old objective.

At the time of this article’s publication, Facebook had not responded to a few simple yes-or-no questions. It’s not clear whether Facebook will use data gathered through the dating service for ad targeting. It’s also not clear whether messages sent between Dating users are end-to-end encrypted (though Facebook has publicly stated its intention to implement encryption on all of its messaging services). But even if Facebook harvests no bits of personal information from the use of its dating service, the thing is designed to get people to use the other parts of Facebook that do harvest info.

On balance, I suppose the privacy concerns about Facebook Dating are better grounded than concerns over competition. Dating apps are one of the most competitive spaces in the tech industry, with multiple highly popular new networks popping up each year. (In the end almost all of them are bought by Match Group, which owns Match.com, Tinder, and OKCupid, among many others.)

But then — social networking seemed pretty competitive when Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp, too. Facebook Dating is now available in 20 countries, and can bootstrap its own growth by promoting itself in one of the most popular apps in the world — while further enmeshing itself with Instagram. (Dating apps like Tinder and Hinge let you integrate with Instagram as well — but will that always be the case? Will Instagram stories come to them, too?)

And for the moment, it’s ad-free and doesn’t require in-app purchases to use any of its features. That’s a luxury that smaller products simply can’t afford.

As a product, Facebook Dating strikes me as well designed and likely quite useful. (It has already produced marriages in some of the countries where it operates, product manager Nathan Sharp told me.) But as a story about competition, it’s another area where Facebook’s many strengths could crowd out competitors over time. If I were mounting an antitrust investigation against the company, it’s a product I’d take a very close look at.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of tech.

⬆️ Trending up: Facebook and Microsoft are partnering with a group of academics to better detect deepfakes. (Unfortunately, the group of academics does not appear to include a woman.)

⬅️➡️ Trending sideways: Apple is making changes in the next version of iOS to prevent third-party developers to collect certain data about users. But developers of apps like Signal say the move could break encryption in their apps.

⬇️ Trending down: Google got caught promoting climate change denialism in its Discover tab.

⬇️ Trending down: “An investigation by ProPublica identified more than 60 accidents since June 2015 involving Amazon delivery contractors that resulted in serious injuries, including 10 deaths.” This is the second big investigation into Amazon delivery safety in a week.

Governing

More than half of US adults trust law enforcement to use facial recognition responsibly. This new research would seem to give a green light to law enforcement agents who, working in concert with tech platforms like Amazon-owned Ring, are well into the construction of a powerful surveillance network. (Aaron Smith / Pew Research Center)

A recent investigation found that U.S. law enforcement agencies are using state Department of Motor Vehicles records to identify individual Americans without their consent, including those with no criminal record. And countries such as China have made facial recognition technology a cornerstone of their strategies to police the behaviors and activities of their publics.

Despite these high-profile examples from fiction and reality, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that a majority of Americans (56%) trust law enforcement agencies to use these technologies responsibly. A similar share of the public (59%) says it is acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition tools to assess security threats in public spaces.

The owner of 8chan appeared before Congress today to answer questions about the prevalence of hate on the site and its popularity with white supremacists who commit acts of terrorism. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)

8chan, which has been offline, could come back as early as next week. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)

What could go wrong in the 2020 election with respect to technology platforms and our democracy? Alex Stamos has a chilling piece of speculative fiction on the subject in Lawfare.

Industry

YouTubers say the this week’s settlement with the Federal Trade Commission could cut their businesses in half. Julia Alexander reports for The Verge:

Creators are coming to terms with exactly how hard it could be. Forrest, a gaming YouTuber with more than 750,000 subscribers who goes by “KreekCraft,” told The Verge that the changes are scary for him. Reading Wojcicki’s blog post only made him feel worse as he tried to figure out, like other YouTube creators, whether his content would be affected by the new system. Would Let’s Play series, tutorials, or even gameplay compilations be considered targeted at children? What’s the difference between family-friendly content and those targeted at kids? No one in the community knows the answers, but everyone is expecting an uphill battle on YouTube under the new system. A YouTube spokesperson pointed The Verge to Wojcicki’s blog when asked for further comment.

“It’s kind of like they’re killing video game content,” Forrest told The Verge. “The top three games on YouTube right now are Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox, which are generally non-violent and child-centric games, especially Roblox. Now, we can’t make videos on more mature video games because they’ll get demonetized, but if we make videos on child-friendly games, they’re also now going to get demonetized. What do we do?”

Meanwhile, there are doubts that YouTube’s AI systems will be able to properly identified channels that target children. ( Gerrit De Vynck and Lucas Shaw / Bloomberg)

Elsewhere, YouTube is trying to court fashion brands to make videos. (Katherine Rosman / New York Times)

SIM swapping, the technique that let hackers take control of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s phone number, is on the rise. (Nathaniel Popper / New York Times)

“I’ve been looking at the criminal underground for a long time, and SIM swapping bothers me more than anything I’ve seen,” said Allison Nixon, the director of research at the security firm Flashpoint. “It requires no skill, and there is literally nothing the average person can do to stop it.”

Instagram influencers find that they get less engagement and slower follower growth in countries where like counts have been removed. (Paige Laskin / Business Insider)

Facebook reduced the distribution of Reductress, a popular feminist satire site, for posting clickbait. In reality its links are satires of clickbait, but good luck teaching that to a machine! (Adi Robertson / The Verge)

Goodreads, the Amazon-owned social network, is underdeveloped and falling apart, this piece argues. (Angela Lashbrook / OneZero)

Medium appears to be working on a feature to let people save articles from around the web into Medium for some reason. (Jane Manchun Wong)

A Fortnite streamer appeared to say a racial slur during a live broadcast for the third time, but it seems that Twitch will not enforce a “three strikes” policy against him.

And finally …

The Memes Are Pouring the White Claw Down Your Throat!

Jonah Engel Bromwich catches us up on what may be the meme of the summer: a category-defining spiked seltzer known as White Claw:

White Claw is ubiquitous, for instance, in so-called starter pack memes, images that show a collection of objects typical of a particular demographic, like high schooler who drinks, suburbanite who moves to Chicago or “person who resents his or her own humanity and doesn’t feel anything real anymore.”

White Claw is often paired with Juul in the cultural imagination, possibly stemming from a popular tweet calling the seltzer “Juul Water.”

Sounds great. Make it a double.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your Facebook Dating profile: casey@theverge.com.





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