Every sci-fi movie about inventions rising up to take over the world is built upon one unchangeable seed crystal: the moment when the technology does something its inventors never predicted. As The Verge reports, that’s exactly what happened to Google engineers in 2010, with a truth-and-justice twist — Google’s AdWords software exposed a Chinese car theft scam.
AdWords is Google’s moneymaker, using your web surfing habits to beam custom-tailored advertising into your browser. To prevent these ads from tailspinning into a spamfest, AdWords uses an algorithm to filter out ads for counterfeit items or phishing sites. But as the story explains, after an update in 2010, AdWords began flagging run-of-the-mill Chinese used car ads. Google engineers were perplexed — the system was meant to block ads for counterfeit handbags, not Hondas.
But what Google engineers thought was a glitch was actually the software outsmarting its pesky human builders. The cars being advertised weren’t counterfeit, but the ads were part of an offline fraud scheme:
Scammers were taking pictures of cars on the street, and when a hapless customer showed up a few days later offering money, they’d steal the car and hand it over. By the time the mark realised he had purchased stolen goods, the sellers were long gone, taking his money with them.
What led AdWords to sniff out a crime where its builders only saw commerce? The algorithm decides based on thousands of factors, but it’s likely that high-price transactions on newly-created accounts tripped the fraud pattern detectors. Sounds simple enough, but it’s fascinating, and perhaps a little scary, to realise that Google’s software is so good, it can even pinpoint fraud that occurs offline, on the streets of China. For the whole fascinating story, head on over to The Verge, and if you’re a criminal, online or off, remember that AdWords has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make it a nightmare for people like you. [The Verge]