Facebook hired contractors to listen to Messenger audio

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Facebook Inc. has employed several third-party contractors to analyze and record audio clips of its users, according to a report from Bloomberg. The contract employees were upset as they were told only to transcribe the audio but were not informed how the audio was recorded or how it was obtained, told the people who desired to remain anonymous due to the fear of losing their job.  They were hearing and transcribing user’s conversations, even vulgar content sometimes, but had no idea why Facebook needs them, the people informed.

Facebook accepted that it had been transcribing users’ audio and told that it would not do so in the future, following an inspection into other companies. The company told that those users who chose the option in Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed were affected. It said that it was only to check whether messages which were anonymized were transcribed correctly via Facebook’s artificial intelligence.

Previously, many other giant companies have been involved in using humans to listen to audio recordings that users expected would be heard by artificial intelligence only. Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft all used human contractors to listen to audio recorded through voice assistant products without being clear about details. According to critics, this is an invasion of privacy.

In April, Bloomberg reported that Amazon had a huge team of workers around the world who listen to Alexa audio requests to improve the software.

Apple’s Siri and Alphabet Inc’s Google Assistant used similar human review method. Once exposed, the companies either stopped using it or allowed the users to opt out. Facebook continued the practice and told that like Apple and Google, it has also paused human review of audio more than a week ago.

After an investigation of its privacy practices, the social networking giant was already going through a rough patch as it just finished a $5 billion settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Facebook has continuously denied that it gathers audio from users to inform ads or help control what users see in their newsfeed. Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, dismissed the idea in a Congressional testimony calling it a conspiracy theory.

“You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads,” Zuckerberg told U.S. Senator Gary Peters in April 2018. “We don’t do that.”

In a question-answer section for Congress, the company told that user’s microphone is only accessed if the user has given the app permission or if they are using particular features that require audio like voice messaging features. However, the company didn’t tell what is done with the audio later.

A decline was seen in the shares of Facebook after the report.  The stock earlier increased by 3.2% but on Tuesday only an increase of 1.6% at $188.37 was observed in Newyork.

As Facebook did not reveal to users that third parties may review their audio, it led some contractors to feel that their work is immoral, said the people with the information of the matter.

A Santa Monica, California based outsourcing firm called TaskUs Inc, also review user conversation. Facebook is one of the most significant and largest clients of TaskUs but the workers are not allowed to reveal who their work is for. The client is called by the code name “Prism.”  Facebook also enables TaskUs to review content, which is a possible violation of policies. TaskUs teams also work on screening political ads and election preparation, but some of the members were moved to the new transcription team. However, for over a week, Facebook has asked TaskUs to pause the transcription work.

Facebook, last year revised data-use policy is easy to comprehend for the public but does not mention anything about audio. It only says that Facebook will collect “content, communications and other information you provide” when users “message or communicate with others.”

Facebook says it’s “systems automatically process content and communications you and others provide to analyze context and what’s in them.”  There is no statement related to human review of content. Facebook does not indicate any transcription team  in a record of types of third parties it share information with but calls them “vendors and service providers who support our business” by “analyzing how our products are used.”

When humans play a role in examining recordings, it highlights the limitations of artificial intelligence in its capacity to identify speech patterns and words. Machines are improving at the task but still wrestle with the unfamiliar. It is quite astonishing how the world’s largest social network is recording and reviewing the content.

In 2015, Facebook began allowing Messenger users to have their audio transcribed. David Marcus, the executive in charge of the Messenger at the time, told that Facebook is continuously working to make Messenger more useful.

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