Facebook paid people to transcribe Messenger voice chats

Marco Green
August 14, 2019

Facebook told Bloomberg that it stopped the secretive project last week. Me neither, but that's exactly what's happened.

Again. According to a report from Bloomberg, Facebook has been paying hundreds of third-party contractors to listen to and transcribe audio conversations from Facebook Messenger. The contractors had no knowledge of where the audio is being recorded and obtained, Bloomberg cited people who hold these contracting jobs as saying. Instead, it's Facebook's "systems" that are supposed to "automatically process content and communications you and others provide to analyze context and what's in them".

A spokesman said human review had been common practice in the industry until recently, and that the audio clips had been masked to avoid revealing anyone's identity.

Facebook hasn't disclosed to users that third parties may review their audio. That led some of the workers to believe their work was "unethical", especially when some of the conversations included vulgar material. Santa Monica, California-based TaskUs instead refers to one of its largest and most important clients only by the code-name "Prism" - which is, ironically, also the name of the NSA initiative exposed by Edward Snowden that installed backdoors in popular online platforms like Google, Skype, Twitter, and...

But in numerous hearings in front of Congress, CEO Mark Zuckerberg insisted that Facebook only accessed people's microphones when explicitly given permission to do so for features like voice messaging.

"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.

To its credit, Facebook was transcribing the audio to improve its AI's ability to interpret messages and not necessarily push ads.

The company "paused human review more than a week ago", Facebook said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the audio being reviewed was from Messenger users who opted in to having their voice chats transcribed to text by AI. "We're always working on ways to make Messenger more useful", David Marcus, the executive in charge of the service at the time, said in a Facebook post.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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