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EXPLAINER: Social media and messages from the Texas Shooter | Economic news

By BARBARA ORTUTAY and MATT O’BRIEN, AP Technology Writers

Could Facebook have been aware of disturbing direct message threats made by a gunman who, according to Texas authorities, massacred 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school? Could he have notified the authorities?

Texas Governor Greg Abbott revealed the online messages sent minutes before Wednesday’s attack, though he called them messages, which are usually distributed to a wide audience. Facebook stepped in to note that the shooter had sent individual direct messages, not public messages, and that they were only discovered “after the terrible tragedy”.

The latest mass shootings in the US by active social media users could put more pressure on social media companies to step up their scrutiny of online communications, even as conservative politicians – including Abbott – also push social platforms to relax their restrictions on certain speech. .

DID FACEBOOK HAVE TO CAPTURE THE SHOOTERS’ MESSAGES?

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Facebook parent company Meta said it monitors people’s private messages for certain types of harmful content, such as links to malware or child sexual abuse images. But copied images can be detected using unique identifiers – a kind of digital signature – which makes them relatively easy for computer systems to flag. Trying to interpret a string of threatening words – which may sound like a joke, satire or song lyrics – is a much more difficult task for artificial intelligence systems.

Facebook could, for example, flag certain phrases such as “go kill” or “go shoot”, but without context – something AI in general struggles with a lot – there would be too many false positives for the company can analyze them. . Thus, Facebook and other platforms rely on user reports to detect threats, harassment, and other violations of the law or their own policies. As evidenced by recent shootings, this often happens too late, if at all.

Even this kind of surveillance may soon be obsolete, as Meta plans to roll out end-to-end encryption to its Facebook and Instagram messaging systems next year. Such encryption means that no one but the sender and receiver – not even Meta – can decipher people’s messages. WhatsApp, also owned by Meta, already has such encryption.

A recent report commissioned by Meta highlighted the benefits of such privacy, but also noted some risks, including users who could misuse encryption to sexually exploit children, facilitate human trafficking, and spread hate speech.

Apple has long had end-to-end encryption on its email system. This has brought the iPhone maker into conflict with the Department of Justice over messaging privacy. After the fatal shooting of three US sailors at a Navy facility in December 2019, the Department of Justice insisted that investigators needed access to data from two locked and encrypted iPhones belonging to the alleged shooter, a Saudi aviation student.

Security experts say it could be done if Apple were to design a “backdoor” to allow access to messages sent by suspected criminals. Such a secret key would allow them to decrypt information encrypted with a court order.

But the same experts warned that such backdoors in encryption systems make them inherently insecure. Just knowing that a backdoor exists is enough to focus spies and criminals around the world on finding the mathematical keys that could unlock it. And when they do, everyone’s information is essentially vulnerable to anyone with the secret key.

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