Facebook latest tech giant to admit to using human review of user audio conversations

Fresh from settling a US$5bn fine with the US Federal Trade Commission for violating user privacy, Facebook is now in hot water for its audio review practices.

Facebook: said it had paused human review of audio
Facebook: said it had paused human review of audio

Facebook is the latest tech company to come under fire for handing its users’ voice recordings over to outside contractors to transcribe without their knowledge.

The social-media site said on Tuesday (14 August) it "paused" the practice more than a week ago following similar revelations at rival tech companies.

"Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," the company said in a statement, following a Bloomberg report into the practice.

Facebook has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from its Messenger users, the news outlet reported. Facebook has said the users opted into having their voice chats transcribed and that the messages were anonymised. The contractors were employed to check whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages.

Facebook is the fifth tech giant to have been exposed for using humans to review audio recordings, which some perceive as a violation of user privacy. While users willingly opt-in to allow their audio to be transcribed, they do so expecting it will only be heard by AI, and not by another human.

Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft have all faced backlash over recent months for the same practice.

Bloomberg first reported in April that Amazon had a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa audio requests with the goal of improving the software, and that similar human review was used for Apple’s Siri and Alphabet’s Google Assistant.

Apple and Google have since said they have stopped the practice, while Amazon said it will let users opt out of human review.

Last week, Vice News revealed Microsoft was using human contractors to carry out quality assurance on recordings for the company’s Cortana voice assistant, as well as for voice conversations carried out over Skype if the app’s translation feature are turned on.

Since voice assistants can often respond to accidental triggers, contractors hired to review audio recordings have reported hearing multiple cases of content that clearly violates user privacy. This can vary from personally identifiable information and medical consultations to couples having sex.

The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK has said it is investigating whether the undisclosed use of human oversight has breached the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), while Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, which oversees Apple and Google, has said it will be making "assessments and conclusions" about the practice. 

This article first appeared on Campaign Asia