Pri­vacy ques­tions as hu­mans re­view Face­book users’ au­dio

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Mae An­der­son and Rachel Lerman

NEW YORK — Face­book has paid con­trac­tors to tran­scribe au­dio clips from users of its Mes­sen­ger ser­vice, rais­ing pri­vacy con­cerns for a com­pany with a his­tory of pri­vacy lapses.

The prac­tice was, un­til re­cently, com­mon in the tech in­dus­try. Com­pa­nies say the use of hu­mans helps im­prove their ser­vices. But users aren’t typ­i­cally aware that hu­mans and not just com­put­ers are re­view­ing au­dio.

Tran­scrip­tions done by hu­mans 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 that some con­tained sen­si­tive per­sonal con­ver­sa­tions — as well as in­for­ma­tion that iden­ti­fied the per­son speak­ing.

“We feel we have some con­trol over ma­chines,” said Jamie Win­ter­ton, di­rec­tor of strat­egy at Ari­zona State Univer­sity’s Global Se­cu­rity Ini­tia­tive. “You have no con­trol over hu­mans that way. There’s no way once a hu­man knows some­thing to drag that piece of data to the re­cy­cling bin.”

Jef­frey Ch­ester, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­racy pri­vacy-ad­vo­cacy group, said it’s bad enough that Face­book uses ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence as part of its data-mon­i­tor­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. He said the use of hu­mans as well is “even more alarm­ing.”

Tim Ba­jarin, tech colum­nist and pres­i­dent of Cre­ative Strate­gies, said it’s a big­ger prob­lem when “what those hu­mans are do­ing with it is out­side of what its in­tended pur­pose is.”

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

Google said it sus­pended do­ing this world­wide while it in­ves­ti­gates the Dutch 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.

A re­port last week said Mi­crosoft also uses hu­man tran­scribers with some Skype con­ver­sa­tions and com­mands spo­ken to Mi­crosoft’s dig­i­tal as­sis­tant, Cor­tana. Mi­crosoft told tech news site Mother­board that it has safe­guards such as strip­ping iden­ti­fy­ing data and re­quir­ing nondis­clo­sure agree­ments with con­trac­tors and their em­ploy­ees. Yet de­tails leaked to Mother­board.

It makes sense to use hu­man tran­scribers to train ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence sys­tems, Win­ter­ton said. But the is­sue is that com­pa­nies are lead­ing peo­ple to be­lieve that only ma­chines are lis­ten­ing to au­dio, caus­ing mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dis­trust, she said.

“Com­mu­ni­cat­ing to users through your pri­vacy pol­icy is le­gal but not eth­i­cal,” she said.

The com­pa­nies’ pri­vacy poli­cies — usu­ally long, dense doc­u­ments — of­ten per­mit the use of cus­tomer data to im­prove prod­ucts and ser­vices, but the lan­guage can be opaque.

“We col­lect the con­tent, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and other in­for­ma­tion you pro­vide when you use our Prod­ucts, in­clud­ing when you sign up for an ac­count, cre­ate or share con­tent, and mes­sage or com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers,” Face­book’s data-use pol­icy reads. It does not men­tion au­dio or voice specif­i­cally or us­ing tran­scribers.

Ba­jarin said tech com­pa­nies need to use mul­ti­ple meth­ods to re­fine ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware, as dig­i­tal voice as­sis­tants and voice-to-text tech­nol­ogy are still new. But he said be­ing more clear about the hu­man in­volve­ment is “the very least” com­pa­nies could do.

“They should be very clear on what their poli­cies are and if con­sumer mes­sages or what­ever it is are go­ing to be seen,” he said. “If hu­mans are part of the process for anal­y­sis that needs to be stated as well.”

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

JENNY KANE/AP

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