Facebook Inc. has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to people with knowledge of the work. The work has 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. Facebook confirmed that it had been transcribing users' audio and said it will no longer do so, following scrutiny into other companies. "Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," the company said Tuesday.
Facebook has become the latest company to admit that human contractors listened to recordings of users without their knowledge, a practice the company now says has been "paused". Citing contractors who worked on the project, Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday that the company hired people to listen to audio conversations carried out on Facebook Messenger. The practice involved users who had opted in Messenger to have their voice chats transcribed, the company said. The contractors were tasked with re-transcribing the conversations in order to gauge the accuracy of the automatic transcription tool. "Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," a Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian.
After months of revelations that smart speakers get a very human intelligence boost from contractors who transcribe and review customer audio snippets, the mea culpas are flowing in. At the end of August, Apple issued a rare apology about how it had handled human review of audio for Siri. Amazon and Microsoft have made it easier for users to understand how their data might be used and control whether or not it is eligible for review at all. And now Google is joining the fray with a set of privacy announcements about Google Assistant. Google paused human audio review worldwide in July after reports that a contractor was leaking audio snippets in Dutch.
Alexa has had a lot of explaining to do. Since Amazon's voice assistant debuted in 2014, the company has convinced millions of people to invite Alexa into their homes. They use it to play music, serve up the news and answer trivia questions. This year, though, the online retailing giant faced a backlash after news broke that human reviewers were sometimes listening to recordings of users' private conversations with Alexa. Those privacy problems will likely cast a shadow on Amazon's annual product launch, which takes place Wednesday in Seattle.
This week, Facebook came under fire for having hired hundreds of contractors to listen to and transcribe users' conversations. Last week, a Vice Motherboard report revealed that Microsoft contractors were listening to audio recordings of personal conversations of Skype users who used the app's AI translation service and voice commands sent to Cortana, the company's AI-powered voice assistant. This comes no longer as a surprise. Microsoft and Facebook aren't not the first tech companies whose employees or remote contractors listen to users' voices. Amazon, Google and Apple have been caught doing the same thing with their voice assistants in the past year (and they've all used cleverly worded EULA's to gain users' consent without explicitly telling them humans will listen to their voice).