Facebook workers are transcribing private user conversations on Messenger

Facebook workers are transcribing private user conversations on Messenger
Digital sovereignty

Facebook has admitted to revealing audio recordings of private user conversations to hundreds of outside contractors, hired to improve the accuracy of its artificial intelligence, according to revelations first disclosed in a Tuesday report from Bloomberg.  On Wednesday, the Irish Data Protection Commission, in charge of supervision of Facebook in the EU, said it was evaluating whether the practice had violated Europe’s privacy regulations. 

Speaking anonymously, contractors reported being tasked with listening to and transcribing private and sometimes sensitive conversations, without any context provided for where the recording came from or why Facebook wanted them transcribed. 

According to the company, the transcriptions were aiming to assess the accuracy of their AI transcription capabilities. They also noted that the practice only affected users that had opted to have voice chats transcribed by AI. The disclosure makes Facebook one of several large tech companies recently revealed to be using human workers to analyze audio recordings of user activity. 

In recent months, reports have revealed that Amazon, Google, and Apple have all used human workers to carry out quality control for AI functionality, giving them access to recordings that users would expect to be private. Voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri can be accidentally triggered, recording such intimate interactions as medical consultations and couples having sex.

With the exception of Amazon, which has said it will allow users to opt out, the companies have suspended the practice.

“Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” a spokesperson for Facebook toldThe Guardian.

Last week, Microsoft also confirmed that recordings from their Cortana voice assistant, as well as communications using Skype’s automatic translation service were also evaluated by human workers.

As with Apple, Facebook said the messages were anonymized before reaching the contractors. 

The contractors expressed concern over whether the work was ethical, since users were not informed their conversations could be heard by third-party human workers. According to one contractor, personal conversations they encountered included everything from home addresses to “stuff [that] could clearly be described as phone sex,” The Guardian reports. 

Facebook recently paid a $5 billion settlement to US regulators over privacy practices, and EU authorities have stepped up privacy enforcement with stricter laws and more robust enforcement.

A spokesperson for the Irish privacy commission told BBC News:

“We are now seeking detailed information from Facebook on the processing in question and how Facebook believes that such processing of data is compliant with their GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] obligations.”

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