On Tuesday, Bloomberg published an article revealing that Facebook had paid contractors to transcribe users’ audio chats. The corporation said it only transcribed the communications of Facebook Messenger customers who agreed to have their conversations recorded. Nevertheless, lawmakers are demanding answers about the firm’s usage of those theoretically private chats.
Facebook’s Audio Transcription Initiative
Like its fellow tech giants Apple and Amazon, Facebook said that it gave contractors access to user audio data to improve its artificial intelligence (AI) systems. The corporation had its reviewers manually write down audio messages to compare them to its AI’s interpretations. The firm first offered audio-to-text translation via Messenger in 2015.
Facebook paid hundreds of independent contractors to help it refine that feature. However, Bloomberg notes that some of the company’s transcribers felt uncomfortable with their work. Staffers said that the sometimes vulgar and disturbing content of the audio made them uneasy. Moreover, contractors also found it disturbing to transcribe audio data without knowing why the social network needed the information.
Notably, Facebook did not tell Messenger users that it would share their audio data with third parties.
After Bloomberg questioned Facebook about its audio transcription program, the service noted that it temporarily paused the practice this week. Apple and Amazon made similar announcements regarding their respective AI optimizing initiatives earlier this month. However, it’s worth noting that Facebook’s unauthorized third-party audio data reviewing program affected more people than those of its counterparts.
Consequences at Last?
While Facebook’s user privacy scandals are unnervingly frequent, this new controversy has prompted action from lawmakers in both America and Europe.
On Wednesday, the Irish Data Protection Commission announced that it would look into the social network’s transcription scheme for possible violations of European Union (EU) law. The organization has already launched investigations into Apple, Google, and Microsoft’s audio data processing practices.
Stateside, Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) wants to know why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress that his company doesn’t record user audio data. In April 2018, Peters asked the executive if the firm’s mobile app records user conversations for advertising purposes. Zuckerberg refuted the accusation and dubbed it a “conspiracy theory.” The company later told Congress that it only accesses users’ device microphones for approved voice messaging services.
On Thursday, Senator Peters wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg expressing his concern surrounding the billionaire’s 2018 testimony. He states that it was “incomplete, at best.”
Does this violate consent decree terms? Was a crime committed?
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) August 14, 2019
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) says that Congress needs to draft laws to hold firms like Facebook accountable for violating users’ privacy. Moreover, prominent tech sector critic Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) took to Twitter to ask if Facebook’s audio transcription program violated its $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.
Given Facebook’s unpopularity with politicians across the aisle, the corporation might finally face serious consequences for its latest public transgression.