Facebook paid hundreds of subcontractors to transcribe sound clips of some users’ conversations, the Bloomberg news agency revealed on Tuesday, although the world’s number one social network has for a long time denied acting in this way to modify its adverts and information pages more effectively.
In a release communicated to the Bloomberg financial agency, Facebook recognises that it had sound recordings of conversations transcribed with the users’ permission, but states it has put an end to this practice. “Just like Apple or Google, we have stopped the practice of having sound recordings made the week before heard by humans,” the social network explained. When questioned by AFP, Facebook had no comment to make for the time being.
Facebook explains it had users’ permission to go ahead with the transcription of their conversations by users of its Messenger app. The subcontractors verified whether the network’s AI was interpreting the messages – made anonymous- correctly. According to Bloomberg, employees tasked with the transcriptions are concerned about the ethical implications of their work, being told neither about the recordings’ origins, nor the use the Mark Zuckerberg company will make of them.
Amazon, Apple and Google, who all sell voice assistants, had already acknowledged doing the same thing to improve the responses from their applications. Apple and Google indicated they had given up the practice in the last few weeks. Amazon gives users the choice of blocking their exchanges with Alexa, the AI behind its voice assistant Echo.
Facebook, which has just paid a record fine of five billion dollars to the American federal authorities for abuse of its users’ personal data, has for a long time denied using audio recordings to enable better targeting of its adverts or to make its pages more attractive. The founder and CEO of the social network giant rejected the very idea in front of a congressional hearing in April 2018. “You are speaking about a conspiracy theory in circulation claiming that we are listening to what is going on in your microphone and that we are using it for advertising,” the young billionaire replied to a question from senator Gary Peters. “We don’t do that,” he replied.
Facebook later stated that it would access a user’s microphone only if he/she had given the application permission. According to Bloomberg, the company had not stipulated what it was subsequently going to do with the recordings.