Facebook Messenger

Facebook Contractors Transcribed Conversations Between Users

Facebook hired contractors to transcribe audio messages between users of its Messages service, according to a Bloomberg report. Facebook’s actions are superficially similar to the recent revelations that Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple were sharing audio collected by their respective voice assistants with contractors, but there are substantive differences upon closer examination.

Facebook Messages Shared Unknowingly

Facebook Messenger set up a voice-to-text transcription feature option four years ago. The company said in a statement that only those had those who opted to use feature had their audio transcribed by contractors. But, only one person in a conversation needs to turn on the feature for the whole conversation to get transcribed, according to Facebook’s Voice to Text Feature page:

“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.”

Facebook claims the point of the transcriptions was to improve the artificial intelligence and make the transcription better. Contractors checked the audio, which did have identification data removed, to see how it matched up with the automatic transcription. But, the voice to text page and Facebook’s terms of service don’t make any mention of people reviewing the audio, only software, as stated below:

“Note: Voice to Text uses machine learning. The more you use this feature, the more Voice to Text can help you. You can control whether text is visible to you for each chat.”

Paused Like Apple and Google, But Different

Facebook said in their statement that the program for people to review the audio was put on hold over a week ago. The company compared it to the pause that Apple and Google put into place for their voice assistant contractor listening program.

Contractors overhearing things people probably did not want to be recorded is as much of a problem for Facebook as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. But, while the point of the transcription is similar, the recordings of the other companies come from voice assistant-enabled devices, not conversations between people. Smart speakers recording audio when they aren’t awoken on purpose worries people, but it’s not the same as having a conversation with someone who has the voice to text feature on, and then Facebook contractors hearing that conversation. The more apt comparison is to phone tapping. But, even in areas that only need one party to consent to recording a conversation, it’s usually at least one of the people in the conversation who is recording, not the phone company.

The Irish Data Protection Commission, which heads oversight of Facebook in the European Union, has already started looking to see if Facebook violated privacy laws. The company isn’t unique there. Amazon is facing questions from its own EU regulator about its privacy practices, and Google put a hold on its program just as German authorities started to look into its contractor program. Facebook has only just agreed to a $5 billion settlement with the U.S. government over privacy problems. Now, Facebook will have to navigate the tricky maze of appeasing customers and regulators even as it faces more scrutiny in general.


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