Facebook paid contractors to listen to your audio chats on its Messenger app

By Christopher Brito

/ CBS News

Facebook listened, transcribed messages

Facebook says it has stopped a program that had workers listen to users' personal conversations on its Messenger app — becoming the latest giant tech company to admit to such a practice. The company reportedly hired third-party contractors to transcribe Messenger audio chats.

The program was first exposed by Bloomberg, which spoke to some contracted employees involved. They told the financial news outlet that they were ordered to transcribe audio recordings but weren't informed where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained. They said the workers heard users' conversations, sometimes including vulgar content, but were not explained the purpose behind the task.

According to Facebook, this was done to improve its products, including the artificial intelligence behind how messages are transcribed from users who opted in to transcription on Messenger.

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More in Tech security & privacy

The company added that the audio snippets were anonymized before being listened to by the workers.

A Facebook spokesperson told CBS News in statement Tuesday that the company "paused human review of audio more than a week ago." Facebook said the practice had been common in the tech industry, but that it would now follow Apple and Google in curtailing it.

Apple recently suspended human review of users' Siri audio recordings, and Google did the same for its voice assistant devices, after it emerged the companies were using contractors to listen to recordings, Bloomberg reported. Amazon said it would let Alexa users opt out from human review.

Facebook said it never listened to people's microphone without device permission and explicit activation.

The company did not comment on what would happen to the audio files used for human review.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to a Senate committee in 2018 that the company isn't eavesdropping your conversations, CNET reported.

How to disable "Voice to Text" in Messenger

According to Facebook's instructions: Click the Messenger app button, open a conversation and tap the name on top. Once you're in the "Chat Details" menu, tap "Automatic Voice to Text" on or off for this chat only.

First published on August 14, 2019 / 2:40 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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