Facebook paid contractors to transcribe users' audio

Galtero Lara
Agosto 14, 2019

It is the latest major tech firm to be caught listening to users' messages without their explicit knowledge, following similar revelations about Amazon, Google and Apple.

Bloomberg said the contractors working on the project were "rattled" by listening to private audio whose origin wasn't disclosed and which sometimes contained vulgar content.

Apple and Google have in recent weeks said they've halted the practice, while Amazon gives users the option of blocking the collection of their voice by Alexa, the artificial intelligence driving their Echo voice assistant.

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It's that difference between Facebook's disclosures - Bloomberg reports that Facebook doesn't mention audio recordings in its data-use policy - and the tasks they were asked to do that spurred the contractors to come forward over concerns that their work was unethical.

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The company "paused human review more than a week ago", Facebook said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the audio being reviewed was from Messenger users who opted in to having their voice chats transcribed to text by AI.

In follow-up answers for Congress, the company said it "only accesses users' microphone if the user has given our app permission and if they are actively using a specific feature that requires audio (like voice messaging features.)" The Menlo Park, California-based company doesn't address what happens to the audio afterward.

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. They call the client by the code name "Prism". That some of the contractors have found the recorded content disturbing is further reminder of the human toll of moderating content on Facebook, the world's biggest social network. But this Facebook news is somehow more foreboding than anything we've heard before. It's not clear why Facebook was paying to have these messages transcribed, though it seems reasonable that the human transcriptions might be used to improve its AI software's natural language processing abilities.

The murkiness of what Facebook did with these recordings is creepy, to say the least.

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