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Gilbert writes: "On Tuesday, Facebook admitted it has, in fact, been listening to users' conversations."

Mark Zuckerberg knows that no company, including Facebook, can afford to assume its primacy will endure. (photo: Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg knows that no company, including Facebook, can afford to assume its primacy will endure. (photo: Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)

Facebook Said It Wasn't Listening to Your Conversations. It Was.

By David Gilbert, Vice

14 August 19

Facebook's excuse? All the other tech companies were doing it, too.

or years, Facebook users were convinced that the company was listening to their conversations, and for years, Facebook dismissed the claims as a ”conspiracy theory.”

On Tuesday, Facebook admitted it has, in fact, been listening to users' conversations.

Following an investigation by Bloomberg, the company admitted that it had been employing third-party contractors to transcribe the audio messages that users exchanged on its Messenger app.

The company said the messages used were “totally de-identified audio snippets used to improve AI transcription of messages from people who had opted into transcription on Messenger.”

The company says the practice has now been stopped, at least temporarily.

“Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement. When asked if the practice was likely to be restarted, the company declined to answer.

So what was Facebook’s excuse for listening to users' audio? Everyone else was doing it.

A Facebook spokesperson told VICE News that the practice was “very common in tech” ⁠— at least until a week ago, when media reports revealed that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft were all capturing and listening to audio from users’ devices.

In April, Bloomberg reported that Amazon was employing thousands of people to listen to what users say to its Alexa-powered speakers. Then, in July, Belgian broadcaster VRT obtained more than 1,000 audio recordings captured by Google, and the company admitted that the recordings underwent human review.

Last month, the Guardian revealed that Apple captured what its users were telling Siri, and reviewed those recordings to grade Siri’s responses.

And last week, an investigation by Motherboard revealed that Microsoft was using human contractors to carry out quality assurance on recordings for the company’s Cortana voice assistant.

All the companies, including Facebook, said the data was stripped of any identifying information and was only used to improve their products, and not to help tailor ads to users. 

Facebook says it followed the lead of other companies to “limit human review of non-public audio.” When asked if it also captures audio from its Portal video calling product, the company declined to answer.

The revelation is just the latest in a long string of privacy violations the company has admitted to in recent years, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which compromised the data of 87 million users, and a 2018 hack that exposed the personal information of 50 million users. Just last month, the company last month agreed a $5 billion fine with the FTC after an investigation of privacy practices.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked by Congress last year about Facebook purportedly listening to people’s conversations without permission.

“You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads,” Zuckerberg said. “We don’t do that.”

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+2 # futhark 2019-08-14 18:24
As one navigates through the Internet, there are always "eyes" watching your every move and assessing it for potential profit or power. This became startlingly clear when I almost inadvertently authorized Pinterest to contact me and as the weeks and months have rolled by I have seen the offers of pinterest contact coverage move into sharper focus with my avocational interests. I don't know how they get their money, but it is obvious that they are tracking me and not without purpose.

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