First it was Amazon. Then Apple. Now, to nobody's surprise, not only was the biggest privacy violator in history, Facebook, also listening in to everything you were dumb enough to say in its proximity, but it also was just as busy writing it all down.
According to Bloomberg, the company which has faced Congressional hearings for virtually every possible and impossible violation of user privacy (and gotten away with it with just a wristslap), Facebook was not only secretly collecting user audio without their knowledge or permission, but was paying "hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services." Facebook - and Mark Zuckerberg - also appear to have forgotten to mention this minor detail during their countless sworn testimonies in Congress over the past year.
The work, as Bloomberg notes, "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.
They’re hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but do not know why Facebook needs them transcribed, the people said.
Here's a lucky guess "why" - because in its attempt to cozy with the government, and replace the NSA, Facebook ran out of in house spies and was forced to hire outside privacy violators in its quest to make a mockery of user privacy.
When approached by Bloomberg, Facebook confirmed that it had been transcribing users’ audio and said it will no longer do so, because somehow that will make it all better.
"We paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” the company said Tuesday. The company said the users who were affected chose the option in Facebook’s Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed. The contractors were checking whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages, which were anonymized.
Of course, Facebook can just plead ignorance, and claim all other big tech companies - including Amazon and Apple - were doing the same. Indeed, all three tech giants have recently come under fire for collecting audio snippets from consumer computing devices and subjecting those clips to human review.
Bloomberg first reported in April that Amazon had a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa audio requests with the goal of improving the software, and that similar human review was used for Apple’s Siri and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Assistant. Apple and Google have since said they no longer engage in the practice and Amazon said it will let users opt out of human review.
Now it's Facebook's turn to say it, too, paused the practice following scrutiny of other technology companies’ audio-collection programs.
Which is odd, because the social networking giant which claims it has over 2 billion monthly active users, just completed a $5 billion settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission after a probe of its privacy practices; it has long denied that it collects audio from users to inform ads or help determine what people see in their news feeds. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg denied the idea directly in Congressional testimony.
“You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads,” Zuckerberg told U.S. Senator Gary Peters in April 2018. “We don’t do that.”
Apparently "we" did.
In follow-up answers for Congress, the company said it “only accesses users’ microphone if the user has given our app permission and if they are actively using a specific feature that requires audio (like voice messaging features.)” The Menlo Park, California-based company did not address what happens to the audio afterward. Now we know: it was all dutifully transcribed and collected.
Some more lies: the Facebook data-use policy, revised last year to make it "more understandable" for the public, includes no mention of audio according to Bloomberg. It does, however, say Facebook will collect “content, communications and other information you provide” when users “message or communicate with others.”
Facebook says its “systems automatically process content and communications you and others provide to analyze context and what’s in them.” It includes no mention of other human beings screening the content. In a list of “types of third parties we share information with,” Facebook doesn’t mention a transcription team, but vaguely refers to “vendors and service providers who support our business” by “analyzing how our products are used.”
Worse, Facebook never disclosed to users that third parties may review their audio. That’s led some contractors to feel their work is unethical, according to the people with knowledge of the matter.
Unethical yes, but criminal? Well, that's up to Congress to decide. And judging by the non-existent reaction in the stock price following the Bloomberg news...