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Facebook employees paid to transcribe user audio files

Apple, Microsoft and now Facebook have been accused of illicitly listening to their users’ conversations

Facebook is in hot water over its usage of user data. Bloomberg reports that the company hired external contractors to transcribe private conversations conducted on the platform.

The social media giant has admitted to the practice, but protests that its human contractors stopped transcribing audio files last week. Facebook also contends that those whose voices and conversations were analysed gave consent to having their data used.

As for why the practice was taking place in the first place, Facebook has disclosed that it was a “manual review” into the firm’s speech recognition tool to check if the artificially intelligent software’s performance was up to scratch – rather than for advertising purposes. The company also assured its users that conversations were made wholly anonymous.

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While Facebook’s privacy policy does inform users that the company’s “systems automatically process content and communications you and others provide to analyse context and what’s in them,” it doesn’t make it explicitly clear that it is human contractors who are doing some of the listening. One has to pose the question: if people knew the reviewers were human, would they be interacting in the same way – or even be using the platform in the first place?

Facebook is just the latest in a prominent line of offenders including Microsoft and Apple, both of whom were accused of using human contractors to manually review products and services, without disclosing the practice to users.

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A whistleblower claimed that Apple contractors “regularly hear confidential info, drug deals and couples having sex” via Siri. Not only that, but recordings of the exchanges are linked to private data that could reveal the user’s location and contact details.

Meanwhile, over at Microsoft, it was revealed that human employees were able to listen to clips of Skype and Cortana users’ conversations in order to carry out the same opaquely named “manual review”.

Now Facebook appears to have followed suit: the company has admitted to paying external contractors to transcribe audio clips – a practice that has now ceased. “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” a company spokesperson explained on Tuesday.

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