Facebook paid to have user’s audio transcribed
NEW YORK — Facebook has paid contractors to transcribe audio clips from users of its Messenger service, raising privacy concerns for a company with a history of privacy lapses.
The practice was, until recently, common in the tech industry. Companies say the practice helps improve their services. But users aren’t typically aware that humans and not just computers are reviewing audio.
Transcriptions done by humans raise bigger concerns because of the potential of rogue employees or contractors leaking details. The practice at Google emerged after some of its Dutch language audio snippets were leaked. More than 1,000 recordings were obtained by Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS, which noted that some contained sensitive personal conversations — as well as information that identified the person speaking.
Different connection: People react differently when they know other humans have heard them rather than machines because it’s a different type of connection, said Jamie Winterton, director of strategy at Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative.
“We feel we have some control over machines,” she said. “You have no control over humans that way. There’s no way once a human knows something to drag that piece of data to the recycling bin.”
Practice stopped: Facebook said audio snippets reviewed by contractors were masked so as not to reveal anyone’s identity. It said it stopped the practice a week ago. The development was reported by Bloomberg.
Google said it suspended doing this worldwide while it investigates the Dutch leaks. Amazon said it still uses humans, but users can decline, or opt out, of the human transcriptions. Published reports say Apple also has used humans, but has stopped.
A report last week said Microsoft also uses human transcribers with some Skype conversations and commands spoken to Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana. Microsoft told tech news site Motherboard that it has safeguards such as stripping identifying data and requiring nondisclosure agreements with contractors and their employees. Yet details leaked to Motherboard.
It makes sense to use human transcribers to train artificial intelligence systems, Winterton said. But the issue is that companies are leading people to believe that only machines are listening to audio, causing miscommunication and distrust, she said.
Facebook is already under scrutiny for a variety of other ways it has misused user data. It agreed to a $5 billion fine to settle a U.S. Federal Trade Commission probe of its privacy practices.
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