In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, photo an iPhone displays the apps for Facebook and Messenger in New Orleans. Facebook says it paid contractors to transcribe audio clips from users of its Messenger service. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Privacy questions as humans reviewed user audio at Facebook

August 14, 2019 - 5:05 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook has paid contractors to transcribe audio clips from users of its Messenger service.

The practice raises privacy concerns, as users aren't typically aware that humans are reviewing audio. Facebook and other tech companies say the practice helps improve their services.

Facebook said that audio snippets were masked so as not to reveal anyone's identity. It also said it stopped the practice a week ago. The development was reported earlier by Bloomberg.

Amazon and Google have also used people to listen to audio from their digital assistant services rather than only using artificial intelligence.

Transcriptions done by humans rather than computers raise bigger concerns because of the potential of rogue employees or contractors leaking details. The practice at Google emerged after some of its Dutch language audio snippets were leaked. More than 1,000 recordings were obtained by Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS, which noted in a story that some contained sensitive personal conversations — as well as information that identified the person speaking.

Google said it suspended doing this in the EU while it investigates the leaks. Amazon said it still uses humans, but users can decline, or opt out, of the human transcriptions. Published reports say Apple also has used humans, but has stopped.

Irish data-protection regulators say they're seeking more details from Facebook to assess compliance with European data regulations.

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