Facebook has paid hundreds of contractors around the world to transcribe some of its users Messenger messages, according to a new Bloomberg report. The social network stopped doing the transcriptions a week ago, following public outrage after journalists revealed that Amazon, Google, and Apple employed similar teams to review voice commands for Alexa, Assistant, and Siri. But this Facebook news is somehow more foreboding than anything we’ve heard before.
It suggests that humans are listening to our private recordings more often than we thought. The recordings that Facebook’s contractors were transcribing came from the voice-to-text feature in Messenger. This is a seemingly innocuous tool that allows you to dictate your messages rather than type them out. Google, Apple, and countless other companies offer similar products, many of which are essential accessibility tools. It’s not clear why Facebook was paying to have these messages transcribed, though it seems reasonable that the human transcriptions might be used to improve its AI software’s natural language processing abilities.
The murkiness of what Facebook did with these recordings is creepy, to say the least. The contractors involved, Bloomberg reports, had no idea where the audio recordings were coming from or why they were being asked to transcribe them. Meanwhile, Facebook never disclosed to users that their audio recordings would be reviewed by humans, though they did have to give Facebook permission to access their microphone to make the recordings. Users also had to turn on the voice-to-text service in Messenger.
Still, the whole situation casts Facebook in a familiar, wicked light. You know that rumor about Facebook using your phone’s microphone to listen in on your conversations and serve you ads based on what you talk about? It turns out that Facebook was doing a version of that by feeding unsuspecting users’ voice recordings to hundreds of contractors to be transcribed. The contractors, who remained anonymous for fear of retribution, told Bloomberg that they were “hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content” and described the work as “unethical.”
Now, the ongoing controversy around humans reviewing voice recordings is bound to blow up. If Facebook was paying contractors to listen to recordings that users just wanted to be transcribed into text, we have to wonder if every company that offers any sort of voice-powered feature might also have their own teams of strangers listening to the recordings. We know that human review is an essential part of improving voice technology. So does that mean a human is always possibly listening?
You might feel nervous now, but at least your paranoid uncle who never upgraded from his flip phone is going to get a good laugh out of all this. “They’re always listening,” he told you. Uncle might just be right.