Facebook has recently committed multiple violations against user privacy and data protection rules, and it seems this kind of news will not stop appearing. Experts in system audits have reported that the company has been working with hundreds of third-party companies to transcribe audio samples from users of Facebook Messenger and other services.
According to anonymous sources working in some of these companies, employees do not receive any information about the audio samples or the way they were collected, as companies simply ask them to transcribe as much as they can; “We really have no idea of Facebook’s purpose in collecting this information,” anonymous employees say.
In this regard, the Data Protection Commission of Ireland reported that the news is being investigated to determine whether the social network has incurred a further violation of the European community data protection legislation, known as GDPR. In recent times, the Northern Ireland government has become an important counterweight to Facebook’s mass information gathering activities. As soon as this was heard, the company’s shares on the New York stock exchange fell 1.5%.
Hours later, Facebook’s official pronouncement was finally learned, through a statement that mentions: “It is true that we have been transcribing some audio samples from users, this practice has been interrupted for a week”. According to system audits experts, with this practice Facebook seeks to verify that its artificial intelligence algorithm correctly interprets the audio messages sent by users.
Recently, multiple reviews have accumulated for the most relevant technology companies, such as Apple or Amazon, due to similar practices. In addition, in the case of Amazon, it has been reported that the company had thousands of employees around the world listening to requests that users make to voice assistant Alexa to improve their response to users. The same method has been used for Apple and Alphabet Inc. assistants. After these reports, both companies claimed that this practice was paused or discontinued.
It’s only been a few weeks since Facebook received a $5bn USD fine from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for its poor privacy practices. At his hearing before the U.S. Senate, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “We don’t activate the user’s microphone without authorization and we don’t use audio samples for advertising purposes, it’s a conspiracy theory.”
During this hearing, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company accesses users’ microphone data only if they are granted permission in the app, although Facebook does not clearly explain what happens to these audio samples after they pass through their servers, system audits experts report.
Although the full list of third-party companies working for Facebook in the analysis of audio samples is still unknown, one of these has been confirmed to be the outsourcing firm based at California TaskUs Inc. Although the social network is the main client of this company, its employees are prohibited from mentioning the relationship between the two companies, referring internally to Facebook with the codename “Prisma”.
In addition to audio sample transcripts, system audits experts from the International Institute of Cyber Security (IICS) say TaskUs also performs content analysis to look for possible policy violations; in addition, a TaskUs team works on the selection of advertisements and political propaganda for certain Facebook users.