Much like Apple, Google, and Amazon have admitted to paying contractors to listed to audio from their respective digital assistants, Facebook is now coming clean about its own similar practice. In a new report today, Facebook confirmed that it has been using paid contractors to listen to audio clips obtained from users of its highly popular Messenger chat app. It also claims that it has since ceased its program.
Messenger offers an optional feature that has the ability to transcribe spoken audio to text. For those that opted-in to the feature, Facebook‘s contractors had the ability to listen in on those conversations in order to provide more accurate transcriptions. There are obvious privacy implications with this approach, even for those that themselves haven’t opted-in to transcriptions.
“Keep in mind, if you turn off Voice to Text and someone else in the chat still has this feature turned on, that person will still see transcriptions,” writes Facebook in its FAQ page for the Voice to Text transcription feature.
According to Facebook, it paused the practice of using contractors to transcribe private conversations over a week ago, which would seemingly coincide with the period of time when Apple was getting blasted for using human contractors to decipher Siri voice recordings. The human contractors were in place to verify that Facebook’s artificial intelligence had correctly transcribed an audio recording.
“The work has rattled the contract employees, who are not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained — only to transcribe it, said the people, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs,” writes Bloomberg. “They’re hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but do not know why Facebook needs them transcribed, the people said.”
We must reiterate that this human oversight was only deployed when a user checked off the option box to enable Voice to Text. The big problem for Facebook, however, is that users of Facebook Messenger didn’t know of this human intervention beforehand, and simply thought that AI was handling the transcription.