Facebook paid contractors to transcribe users’ audio clips: Here’s what happenedhttps://indianexpress.com/article/technology/social/facebook-paid-contractors-to-transcribe-users-audio-clips-heres-what-happened-5909787/

Facebook paid contractors to transcribe users’ audio clips: Here’s what happened

Facebook was getting audio clips transcribed by third-parties contractors. These audio clips were shared on Facebook as part of Voice to Text feature on the Messenger app. Here's what happened

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Facebook paid third-parties to listen to users’ audio clippings and transcribe them. Here’s what happened. (Image source: Bloomberg)

The privacy fears regarding Facebook and its apps have once again come to the forefront after a Bloomberg report highlighted that the company paid outside contractors to transcribe audio clips from users of its Messenger services. Facebook was getting audio clips transcribed, which it got under the Voice to Text feature on the Messenger app.

This report comes after Facebook recently settled a privacy lawsuit with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and agreed to pay a $5 billion fine. Facebook is not the only company to face criticism over how it handles users’ audio content. Apple, Amazon and Google have also faced heat over employing human contractors to listen to audio clippings of users, who were relying on the voice-assistants from these companies.

In Facebook’s case, Bloomberg has also revealed that the employees who were transcribing the audio clips did not know where it was recorded or the manner in which it was obtained. The report adds that many of these employees, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, said that some of the content was vulgar, included user conversations, and they found it disturbing.

On its part, Facebook admitted that it was transcribing users’ audio and said it was suspending the program. “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” Facebook said in a statement, according to the report.

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(Image source: Screenshot from Facebook)

What is the Facebook Voice to Text feature?

Facebook was transcribing data from audio clips which it received in the ‘Voice to Text’ option for audio messages sent on Messenger. Facebook did not roll out this feature to all countries and locations. For instance in India, we could not see the option for auto-transcription for voice messages.

Facebook Voice to Text feature in Messenger would display a text for the voice clips sent or received. Users would have to turn on the option when they sent a voice message to their friend via the Messenger app.

Facebook’s page for Voice to Text explains that even if the user turns it off, but if someone else in the chat still has this feature turned on, that person will still see transcriptions. However, the page does not mention that third-parties will be analysing these audio clips for transcriptions and double checking how the artificial intelligence software fared.

A user had to send a voice clip in a chat and after that they could tap the Transcribe option, which would turn on Voice to Text. The audio message would then show the transcribed text at the bottom of the audio recording.

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For Facebook, it will raise new doubts and questions about its committment to privacy (Image source: Reuters)

Just like other tech companies, Facebook was getting the audio transcribed to check whether the AI or artificial intelligence system interpreted the messages correctly and showed the right transcription. While Facebook says the messages were anonymised, which ensured that they could not be traced back to one particular user, its privacy policy does not mention anything about transcriptions of their audio clips.

Did Facebook inform users that it would transcribe these audio clips?

This is the crux of the problem, because Facebook’s privacy policy does not mention that third-party contractors will be listening to conversations and transcribing the audio content. The privacy policy says this about data collection: “our systems automatically process content and communications you and others provide to analyze context and what’s in them.” Nowhere does privacy policy mention transcriptions by third party companies, which the Bloomberg report also noted.

Facebook’s privacy policy has this to say on partners getting user data: “Partners receive your data when you visit or use their services, or through third parties that they work with. We require each of these partners to have lawful rights to collect, use and share your data before providing us with any data.” There is no mention of the data being shared by Facebook with third-parties for further analysis or transcriptions.

When users turned on the transcription feature, Facebook did not mention or prompt users that data from this could be shared with potential third-party companies for further analysis. It only asked them for a yes, or no, with regard to turning on the Voice to Text feature.

Which company was reviewing these Facebook audio clips?

According to Bloomberg, one of the companies reviewing the user conversations is TaskUs Inc. Facebook is their largest client, but employees can only use the code name to refer to the social media company, which is “Prism.”

While TaskUs also reviews content for Facebook, it was also looking at the transcription work. The company confirmed that Facebook asked them to pause this particular task over a week ago.