Facebook paid contractors to transcribe audio chats without informing users

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Facebook has been under constant watch for violation of privacy rights of its users(Credits - Pixabay)

Facebook has paid several external contractors for transcribing the audio clips of its users as per people having knowledge of the work. The contract employees are not informed about the source of the audio recordings or the manner in which it has been obtained. They were simply asked to transcribe them. The people who have requested anonymity said that they heard the conversations of Facebook users but they have no knowledge why Facebook needs the transcription.

Irish Data Protection Commission is currently examining the activity in case it violated the data privacy laws of the EU. This was observed with a fall in the Facebook shares by 1.3% in pre-market trading. Facebook confirmed that it had been transcribing audio from its users adding that it will not continue the activity. It said that affected users chose the option to have their voice chats transcribed in its Messenger app. Contractors checked if the AI of Facebook was able to properly interpret the messages. 

Other tech companies such as Amazon and Apple have also come under the radar for collecting audio from the users and further reviewing them. It is against the privacy of the users. It was reported by Bloomberg that Amazon maintained a team of workers across the globe to listen to Alexa audio requests for supposedly improving the software. A similar practice was maintained by Apple and Google, although they declared that the practice was stopped and Amazon announced that it will allow users to opt-out from the service.

Facebook has denied for a long time that it did not access the microphones of users for informing ads or controlling the news feeds. Mark Zuckerberg directly denied it in his Congressional testimony. But it acknowledged that the microphones of those users are accessed who provide permission for a specific feature such as recording in voice messages. No information was provided on what happens to the information later on. However, it is interesting to note that the social media giant just completed a 5 billion dollar settlement with the US Federal Trade Practices in a probe of its privacy practices.

Some contractors involved with the transcription services feel their work is not ethical as users are not informed that their audio might be reviewed by third party users. One of the firms involved is TaskUs Inc, based in California. Facebook is one of its important clients, however, employees are not allowed to publicly disclose it, who refer to the client by the code Prism. TaskUs also reviews content that may violate Facebook policies while also reviewing political ads and election activities. It was instructed by Facebook to pause on the transcription task a week earlier.

Facebook data use policy that was reviewed last year has no mention of audio. Instead, it states to collect content, communications and other information provided when users communicate with each other. There is no mention that the content will be reviewed by other human beings while it declares that its systems process the content automatically for context. Transcription teams are not mentioned with only a vague mention of vendors supporting the business.

Machines are able to recognize audio but have problems in some unfamiliar cases. It is a point of concern that the moderators have often found disturbing content on the largest social networking site of the world.

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