Facebook paid third parties to transcribe users’ voice messages
The latest news that shocks us – then makes us stop and wonder why we were shocked in the first place – comes in the form of allegations that Facebook has been spying on users’ voice messages. The allegations say that the social media giant paid third-party contractors to transcribe audio clips taken from Facebook Messenger. The contractors did not know that the messages were taken from Facebook users. Those who came forward with the information wished to stay anonymous, due to fears that they may lose their job as a result of the allegations.
The Irish Data Protection Commission said it would be investigating the issue for potential breaches of the EU’s privacy rules – which are far stricter than those in the US. The move comes not long after the DPC said it would be investigating Google over potential GDPR breaches.
Facebook, for its part, actually confirmed the allegations, but affirmed that it is no longer transcribing users’ audio. “We paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” said the company on Tuesday. They added that the users whose audio was used opted-in by choosing an option in the Facebook Messenger app. The contractors employed by Facebook were transcribing the audio in order to improve the company’s message-interpreting artificial intelligence. The messages, mercifully, were anonymized throughout the entire process.
The contractors that have since come forward with these revelations say that they feel their work is unethical, according to people with knowledge of the matter. This is due to the fact that Facebook never informed users that third parties would be reviewing their audio.
While their request for anonymity means that we do not know which company these people work for, one company that is known to work for Facebook is TaskUs Inc, an outsourcing firm based in California. TaskUs is used by Facebook to review content posted by users to ensure that it is in line with the company’s policies. When asked for comment about the transcription work, TaskUs replied: “Facebook asked TaskUs to pause this work over a week ago, and it did”. This confirms and is in line with Facebook’s statement on the matter.
While this news is initially shocking, the more you think about it, the less shocking it becomes. In a statement to Congress in April of 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the company does not use user audio for ads. He did not, however, disclose what the audio is used for.
While many may argue that humans checking AI-created audio transcriptions is necessary to ensure accuracy, companies should still inform users when they are using their audio for personal gain. Messenger audio transcription was first added back in 2015, with the aim of making “Messenger more useful”, according to David Marcus, who was in charge of the service at the time.