This article is more than 1 year old

Yet another reminder: When a tech giant says its AI listens to you, it means humans listen to you. Right, Facebook?

If you let voice chat app transcribe your calls, yup, people were paid to eavesdrop on your private conversations

Facebook secretly employed hundreds of contractors to listen to clips of its addicts' private voice calls to transcribe parts of conversations its AI software couldn't understand.

Basically, if you allowed Facebook Messenger to automatically transcribe your voice calls, and the antisocial network's machine-learning code couldn't work out what you said during your nattering, an audio clip of your voice would be shared with a human to listen to and figure out what was said, according to Bloomberg on Tuesday.

The contractors were not told where the audio clips came from; they were simply told to listen and type into a Facebook system what was said in the recordings, words that were presumably fed back into the US tech giant's AI code to improve its transcription abilities. The audio samples were, apparently, anonymized, though you can imagine the sorts of embarrassing and private stuff the human freelancers overheard. This speech-to-text feature in the Messenger app was opt in, we understand.

Facebook's polices state that the biz will collect “the content, communications and other information you provide when you use [its] products, including when you sign up for an account, create or share content, and message or communicate with others.” It is not terribly clear that voice calls will be shared with humans for analysis, though.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that tech giants are snooping in your private conversations. After all, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google have also admitted to hiring third party contractors to overhear netizens. It's because although today's artificially intelligent algorithms are not bad, they are far from good, and rely on humans hidden out of sight to massage them into shape. No corporation tells you this explicitly because otherwise people, politicians, and regulators would completely freak out if they found out just how much private information is inspected not just by code but by human handlers, too.

Someone snooping on someone else

Reminder: When a tech giant says it listens to your audio recordings to improve its AI, it means humans are listening. Right, Skype? Cortana?


In April, it emerged that Amazon was using humans to monitor the performance of its digital assistant Alexa to see whether the creepy device was responding appropriately to user requests. It turns out, you can stop humans snooping on you via Alexa by jiggering with your privacy settings.

Last month, a whistleblower working as a contractor on behalf of Apple, revealed that samples of audio collected by Siri for human analysis sometime contained the sounds of people having sex, talking about sensitive medical information, or conducting dodgy drug deals.

Google came clean about its smart speaker’s nosey habits last month, too. Audio clips recorded by the microphone on its Google Home devices were supposedly passed onto “language experts” to review. “This is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant,” the search king said at the time.

We asked Facebook for more explanation about its voice call transcriptions, though a spokesperson refused to talk to us on the record beyond this short statement: “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago.” ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like