A new report has revealed that Facebook, like many of the other tech giants, sent some of its user’s audio recordings to third-party contractors and that these recordings sometimes contained “vulgar content.”
This revelation adds to growing concerns that tech giants are surveilling users and listening to conversations with previous reporting confirming that Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft also ran similar programs which sent user conversations to third-party contractors. Most of these programs have now either been paused or updated to give users an opt-out option.
According to this latest report, Facebook’s contractors felt that the work was “unethical” because they believe that Facebook “hasn’t disclosed to users that third parties may review their audio.”
Facebook’s data use policy doesn’t specifically mention collecting audio or sending that audio to third parties. However, it does contain vague terms stating that it will collect “content communications and other information you provide” and that it shares this information with “vendors and service providers who support our business” by “analyzing how our products are used.”
The report adds that Facebook has paid hundreds of contractors to review and transcribe audio recordings and that these contractors didn’t know where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained.
In its response to this story, Facebook said users who had their audio recordings sent to third-party contractors had opted in to voice chat transcriptions via an option in the Facebook Messenger app.
Facebook also confirmed that it has been transcribing user audio since 2015 and stopped the program earlier this month after other tech companies were scrutinized for this practice:
“Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago.”
Facebook says the voice chat recordings data was anonymized and the transcriptions were used to check whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) was correctly interpreting the messages.
The report also confirmed that one of the third-party contractors that received Facebook data was the outsourcing firm TaskUS. Employees of TaskUS are prohibited from mentioning who they work for publicly and Facebook reportedly has been given the code name “Prism.” Ironically, this is the same code name for the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) mass data collection program that was featured in leaks from Edward Snowden in 2013.
In addition to transcribing these audio recordings, the report says that TaskUS has also worked with Facebook to review content that potentially violates its policies, screen political ads, and help the company prepare for elections.
Not only does this report add to the growing concerns around big tech’s transparency when it comes to data collection but it’s also likely to raise more suspicions around how Facebook uses audio data for ad targeting.
Users have been claiming for several years that they’re shown Facebook or Instagram ads based on their recent conversations – an accusation that Facebook has strongly denied and referred to as a “conspiracy theory.”
When asked whether Facebook uses audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users during a Senate hearing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “no” and then elaborated by saying:
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“You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around, that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and we use that for ads. We don’t do that.”