A Palestinian construction worker was arrested by Israeli police after Facebook incorrectly translated the text of one of his posts. Haaretz reports that the man uploaded a picture from his job at a construction site with the text “good morning” in Arabic. When officers used Facebook’s automatic translation service to read the post, the text was mistranslated as “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English.
According to Haaretz, Arabic speakers said the “English transliteration used by Facebook is not an actual word in Arabic but could look like the verb ‘to hurt’ – even though any Arabic speaker could clearly see the transliteration did not match the translation”. No Arabic-speaking officers reportedly saw the post prior to the man’s arrest. He was released after several hours of questioning.
Facebook originally used Microsoft’s translation AI, but began using a proprietary translation software in 2016. When contacted by Gizmodo, Necip Fazil Ayan, an engineering manager in Facebook’s language technologies group, provided the following statement:
Unfortunately, our translation systems made an error last week that misinterpreted what this individual posted. Even though our translations are getting better each day, mistakes like these might happen from time to time and we’ve taken steps to address this particular issue. We apologise to him and his family for the mistake and the disruption this caused.
In the picture uploaded with the text, a man is propped against a bulldozer at a West Bank construction site. This only added to the perceived suspicion, as bulldozers have been used in hit-and-run terrorist attacks. The Israel Defence Forces monitors Palestinians’ social media as a way to detect radicalisation or potential terror attacks. The West Bank is largely Israeli controlled, though pockets have joint Israeli-Palestinian control and conflict over contested land is ongoing.
Facebook offers an entire suite of features that it says can help authorities prevent terrorism, from computer vision to keyword monitoring. Still, critics have long warned these tactics can be misused by state powers as a means of targeted surveillance. In this case, a simple misunderstanding could have cost a man his livelihood.
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