Crowd-Sourced Translation Goes Awry For Facebook

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Facebook’s crowd-sourced translation app has helped the company translate Facebook into over 100 different languages quickly and cheaply. However, the company (and many of its users) just discovered one of the downsides of crowd-sourcing- vulnerability to online pranksters.

The problem was discovered on July 28th, when Spanish and Turkish-speaking Facebook users logged on to find their pages filled with profanity in both English and Spanish. For example, according to this article on The Register, the Turkish version of Facebook’s IM error message, which is supposed to read “Your message could not be sent because the recipient is offline,” was changed to say “ “Your message could not be sent because of your tiny penis.” That’s pretty much the only example that’s even printable.

Why did Facebook suddenly start cursing at its users?  Facebook’s translation app depends on users to vote for the most accurate translations for each piece of text. That works great, as long as the people are voting are honestly trying to be helpful. Unfortunately for Facebook, members of a Turkish online forum called Inci Sözlük worked together to create the profane “translations” and vote them up. This vulnerability is inherent in any sort of crowd-sourcing unless precautions are taken. For example, when young Canadian pop star Justin Bieber tried to “crowd-source” a stop on his world tour, his contest was hijacked by the internet pranksters at 4chan, who promptly voted to send him to North Korea.

Rik Ferguson, a security consultant at Trend Micro, told the Register that this prank should serve  as “teachable moment,” both for Facebook and for other companies that use crowd-sourcing:

“Perhaps it is fortunate that the hole has been exposed through a prank in the first instance and not something more nefarious. Any online service, whether it’s translation or reputation services, which solicits user generated content would be well advised to quality check that content before going live with it.”