Facebook Admits it Listens to and Transcribes Private Voice Chats on Messenger

Ben Keller

Facebook admits to listening to and transcribing your voice chats on Messenger. They say you agreed to it. But did you?

Facebook Inc. has been hiring hundreds of third party contractors to transcribe audio clips from calls made on its Messenger app, according to an admission made by the company last week.

The contractors, who shared knowledge with news media but requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, say they hear Facebook users' conversations, which sometimes contain vulgar and private content.

The work has left some of the employees rattled, because they are not told where the calls are recorded, why or how they were obtained — only to transcribe it.

Facebook admitted to the practice, confirming it has been transcribing audio calls made by its users in recent years.

But the company said it will no longer hire humans to review audio calls, as of last week.

"Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," Facebook announced on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg.

Instead, the company says it will rely on artificial intelligence to transcribe voice chats, but only for users who chose the option to have their voice calls transcribed in Facebook's Messenger app.

Facebook claims it only hired the third-party contractors for the purpose of checking whether or not its current artificial intelligence systems correctly transcribe the human voice chats, which the company promises were anonymized.

Other companies like Apple and Amazon, which we reported about last month, recently faced scrutiny for collecting audio recordings from smart devices like Alexa and other computing devices, and then employing humans to review the private conversations.

Amazon, too, said it only eavesdropped on its customers' private conversations to improve its speech recognition system.

Amazon claims it only recorded private conversations of its customers with its Echo line of smart speakers, using the Alexa digital assistance, to better understand speech patterns and human language, which they say is all about bettering the customer experience.

Google and Apple have both since said they no longer hire humans to review conversations recorded through their products.

Amazon said it gives users the choice to opt out of human employees reviewing private conversations.

Many believe Facebook has long used audio recordings and artificial intelligence to target users with ads or determine what to show in their news feed.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company's CEO, directly denied the allegations when he testified before Congress in April 2018.

"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 Senator Gary Peters during his Congressional testimony.

"We don't do that."

In July, the social media giant agreed to a $5 billion settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission amid a probe into its privacy practices.

After Zuckerberg's testimony, Facebook followed up with more explanations answering questions from Congress saying 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."

Facebook never addressed what happens to the audio recordings after they're collected.

Some contractors have found themselves in a dilemma doing the work, saying it's unethical, because the company hasn't disclosed to users that third parties may review recordings of private conversations.

A Santa Monica, California-based company named TaskUs Inc.is at least one firm outsourced to review user conversations, according to those with knowledge on the topic.

Facebook is one of TaskUs's most important and largest clients, but TaskUs employees aren't allowed to mention who they work for.

Instead, they refer to Facebook by the code name "Prism."

Facebooks contracts with TaskUs for other tasks, like reviewing content to determine whether it violates its community standards.

Some contractors are also tasked with working on preparing for the 2020 election and screening political ads.

In its data-use policy, which was revised last year to make it easier to understand, Facebook states it will collect "content, communications and other information you provide" when users "message or communicate with others."

The revised policy makes no mention of audio.

Facebook shares pared gains following the announcement, which were up 1.6% at $188.37 at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.


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