When you privately share something to a specific group of friends on Facebook, there’s a chance other people will read it. Reuters reports that Facebook employs a couple hundred contractors to read all Facebook posts, including the private ones, in order to train the company’s software. There’s no way to opt out of this.
The outsourced team mentioned in the report works out of India and is tasked with labeling content in order to help Facebook build new features. Reuters explains the process in simple terms:
The workers categorize items according to five “dimensions,” as Facebook calls them. These include the subject of the post - is it food, for example, or a selfie or an animal? What is the occasion - an everyday activity or major life event? And what is the author’s intention - to plan an event, to inspire, to make a joke?
The work is aimed at understanding how the types of things users post on its services are changing, Facebook said.
So you tell your five closest friends that you ate cake at a wedding and intend to marry your significant other: the contractors will make note of that and send the information back up to Facebook. According to the report, the team looks at “a random sampling of text-based status updates, shared links, event posts, Stories feature uploads, videos and photos, including user-posted screenshots of chats on Facebook’s various messaging apps.” Instagram posts are also analyzed by the team.
This news probably shouldn’t push you into full privacy freak out mode, since a team of this size can only analyze a limited number of posts. Reuters says the current group of labelers is about 260 people who review around 700 posts a day. Still, most people would find it unsettling that a random stranger in India could be looking at their private Instagram photos or reading their private Messenger chats at any given time. The Reuters report does not specify how or even if the posts being reviewed and labeled are anonymized.
“We make it clear in our data policy that we use the information people provide to Facebook to improve their experience and that we might work with service providers to help in this process,” a Facebook spokesperson told Reuters.
The practice of using random people on the other side of the globe to read your private communications is actually becoming more commonplace. Just a few weeks ago, we learned that Amazon employed a team of thousands to read transcripts of Alexa recordings in order to improve the voice assistant and develop new features for the company. Google and Apple also employee teams of humans to review recordings from their voice assistants. As experts told Gizmodo in April, human review is an important part of training AI software, and without it, products like Alexa simply wouldn’t work as well. The extent to which users know about this step in the development process and understand how using products like Alexa or, well, Facebook as a whole depends on the company building the software.
“It’s a core part of what you need,” Nipun Mathur, Facebook’s director of product management for AI, told Reuters about the content labeling efforts. “I don’t see the need going away.”
Still, the idea that private Facebook or Instagram posts might be read by strangers will come as a surprise to countless users. Privacy advocates might point to this fact as evidence that the United States needs stronger federal privacy legislation, perhaps something that resembles Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Without stronger regulations, some say, companies could continue to collect user data and even share it with third parties. Through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we know that Facebook has a history of doing this. Facebook is also looking at a multi-billion dollar fine from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for privacy violations.
So beware what you post. This has always been the case with Facebook and the internet in general. But “private post” probably means something different to you than it does to Facebook. After all, Facebook is letting random contractors read your private posts, which doesn’t sound very private at all.