The Slatest

Facebook Has Been Paying Outside Contractors to Listen to and Transcribe Users’ Audio Messages

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg as he leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 10, 2019.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg as he leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 10, 2019.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/Getty Images

Facebook has been using outside contractors to listen to and transcribe users’ audio clips, again raising questions about the transparency of the company’s terms of service and its handling of sometimes-sensitive personal data. The latest disclosure came via a Bloomberg report that found the company has been using hundreds of outside contractors to provide text versions of audio messages sent through Facebook Messenger. The social media company confirmed to Bloomberg that it had been transcribing audio messages, saying that the transcription was limited to those who opted in to the text transcription service option on Facebook’s Messenger app. Facebook said the purpose of hiring human transcribers was to provide a check on the company’s artificial intelligence translations of anonymized messages and improve their accuracy.

“Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” the company said in statement Tuesday. “The work has rattled the contract employees, who are not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained—only to transcribe it, said the people, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. They’re hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but do not know why Facebook needs them transcribed, the people said,” according to Bloomberg. “Facebook hasn’t disclosed to users that third parties may review their audio. That’s led some contractors to feel their work is unethical, according to the people with knowledge of the matter.”

“Facebook claims only those who opted in to the feature had their audio clips reviewed by third-party contractors. However, according to its support page, if even one person in your chat has consented to Facebook transcribing the conversation, any audio in the thread would have been translated, regardless of who sent it,” the Verge notes. “The findings are particularly troubling given that nowhere in Facebook’s support page or terms of service does it indicate that humans would be reviewing the audio.”