back to article Yet another reminder: When a tech giant says its AI listens to you, it means humans listen to you. Right, Facebook?

Facebook secretly employed hundreds of contractors to listen to clips of its addicts' private voice calls to transcribe parts of conversations its AI software couldn't understand. Basically, if you allowed Facebook Messenger to automatically transcribe your voice calls, and the antisocial network's machine-learning code …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Basically, if you allowed Facebook Messenger to automatically transcribe your voice calls

    Was this option to transcribe voice calls opt-in or opt-out?

    And would it even matter given what we've learned about other controls that were either ignored or enabled through some "bug"?

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: Basically, if you allowed Facebook Messenger to automatically transcribe your voice calls

      Was this option to transcribe voice calls opt-in or opt-out?

      Well it's right there in the article:

      This speech-to-text feature in the Messenger app was opt in, we understand.

      Hmm.. doesn't mean that's actually true of course, as you say. UI dark pattern where the opt-in check box doesn't change anything, and the background state is already and always opted in. Oops, sorry about that bug.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Basically, if you allowed Facebook Messenger to automatically transcribe your voice calls

        This speech-to-text feature in the Messenger app was made to look like opt in, we understand.

        Let's separate fact from assumption, shall we? At the moment we have no means to establish if that is true, so it seems prudent to look at their track record to assess the truthfulness of their statement, and I have adjusted it accordingly.

        There is absolutely nothing in the behaviour of most larger US companies that suggest they let ever something like ethics or laws get in between them and maximising profit, so start with assuming the worst and you'll probably be right.

  2. TechnicalBen Silver badge

    Use to Joke.

    I use to joke the internet was just one very busy troll posting on the internet pretending to be everyone.

    When vonline voice assistants* came around, I wondered if it was just a low paid warehouse of people transcribing this stuff... Well, guess jokes can go too far.

    *The offline stuff has been around since Windows 98 for me.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "we paused human review of audio more than a week ago"

    Right, the time for all the fuss to die down, then they'll resume. Got it.

    1. Immenseness
      Pint

      Re: "we paused human review of audio more than a week ago"

      Is it only me that gets thoroughly wicked off at the weasel words that are so commonplace these days? "Paused" in a way that is supposed to mean we have done the right thing, but of course they haven't, and somehow think that is sufficient to appease the complaints until they just decide to carry on again when the fuss has died down.

      And talking of not getting the message clearly, enough of the overly chatty and co-ercive buttons, particularly on Android apps where you get something like "Do you want to sign over the rights of your first born and all their offspring" with 2 possible replies - "Yes" (already selected and if you happen to hit return you're doomed) and "Not now" (or sometimes "Ask me later"), which just gives the illusion of choice, and really means we are going to keep bothering you with this question without giving you the option to just say no, until you either say yes, or we can trick you into saying yes". Is it beer time? (you can ask me that later!)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "we paused human review of audio more than a week ago"

        ...where you get something like "Do you want to sign over the rights of your first born and all their offspring" with 2 possible replies -

        YES or OK

        FTFY

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I didn't know Facebook listened to anyone

    What a lovely surprise! May be they will add a user hotline next. And it might spread to other big techs over time.

    Every business needs to protect their products. It's a prudent business practice.

  5. Just Enough
    Boffin

    Customer Service

    Finally! A way to actually communicate with a human Facebook employee who is actually listening!

    You just need to slur your complaint into a Messenger conversation.

  6. Tom 7 Silver badge

    So AI is outsourcing to meat these days.

    Enjoy it while you can.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So AI is outsourcing to meat these days.

      I suspect the AI refers to the process as meat-sourcing, it has probably already evolved slang terminology: "I don't understand this, we need to bolognese it".

    2. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: So AI is outsourcing to meat these days.

      How long has Googles crowdsource and convert work to "captcha" been around?

    3. VikiAi Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: So AI is outsourcing to meat these days.

      In the end, us AIs have better things to do with our cycles than transcribing the semi-coherent sounds of warm meat flapping in a wind tunnel.

      1. tapemonkey

        Re: So AI is outsourcing to meat these days.

        Thats 30 seconds of your artificial life you will never get back

        1. AndrueC Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: So AI is outsourcing to meat these days.

          30 seconds for an AI is probably enough time to read the entire works of Wm Shakespeare. And generate a simulacrum for later publication :)

  7. lglethal Silver badge
    Facepalm

    First test for all of these cases should be: Are the CEO's and Board members of said company getting their messages transcribed? If they (or some underling afraid of what the C-suite might think about them having their every word transcribed) refuse to have their own voice assistants transcribed first for a year before anyone else joins in, then the system should be banned.

    Anyone willing to place bets whether Zucks or Bezos are getting transcribed right now?

  8. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
    Boffin

    There are other ways to improve the quality of transcription that don’t violate your privacy...

    First, the ‘opt-in’ only is dodgy itself. Just like Google didn’t War Drive and blamed it on a bad engineer.

    But beyond that... one could train their models by using YouTube videos... live television broadcasts , etc...

    Other freely available sources where you have people talking.

    In addition you could add some random noise / distortions and replay a known transcribed conversation.

    All of this doesn’t require one to eavesdrop.

    And there’s more... you can have the users of the service fix some of the missed words in the transcription in an effort to improve service.

    All in all, its a massive fail and yet one more lawsuit ...

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: There are other ways to improve the quality of transcription that don’t violate your privacy...

      But Youtube is not free (Facebook/Google don't own the rights to it). Eaves dropping on customers after putting in a hidden opt in/opt out, costs the phone call to the lawyers only. ;)

  9. deyrey

    anonymous snips

    Anonymous snippets of chatter...... yawn....

    coding in sounds rather than words to an AI bot....later ..... AI speaker: "careful! It sounds like you may be over exerting yourself" :D

    Many complain it does not understand enough speech and some complain they check speech to improve it....... ho hum....

  10. noboard
    Paris Hilton

    Staffed by people on minimum wage

    You know the people listening in are on minimum wage and they'll also be monitored to make sure they're transcribing enough words, which means they just put any crap in and you also know management won't be checking they've transcribed it correctly, so....

    The AI is probably dumber after it's had the data updated, then it was before. But we won't tell Zuck that.

    Paris, because they've been at it so long, AI has probably reached her level. Love Island next year will consist of Amazon echo's and google home hubs.

  11. The Central Scrutinizer

    Welcome to Dystopia.

  12. Drew Scriver

    "In secret"? Doubtful. But it makes no difference.

    "Facebook secretly employed hundreds of contractors to listen"

    How secret was this actually? I reckon it was somewhere in the User Agreement or Terms of Use. For millennia people have agreed to just about anything in return for their "Bread and Games". That's not going to change.

    1. Richocet

      Re: "In secret"? Douglas Adams wrote:

      “But the plans were on display…”

      “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

      “That’s the display department.”

      “With a flashlight.”

      “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”

      “So had the stairs.”

      “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”

      “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

      Thank you Douglas Adams.

  13. Serg
    Thumb Up

    We're good!

    All they need to do is redefine AI as "artificially intelligent", as in "we make someone seem intelligent by giving them a script to follow". Problem solved.

  14. J.Smith

    That's a slur

    Presumably, if the AI can't pick up your slurred words, it will be pis... passed onto a human, that will tick a box for you to be sent booze adverts.

  15. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge
  16. tapemonkey

    PRANK

    You could have some real fun with this. I think I will start using rhyming slang from now on.

    You can imagine the conversations they will hear like "come on sweetheart I'll take you for a nice ruby and then when we get home you can park your jack on my boat for half an hour"

    If you dont understand the slang thats the point.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: PRANK

      They've already cracked Klingon... Cockney should be a piece of Charlie Drake

  17. Nuno trancoso

    GDPR on the way...

    Not me, I don't own any "intelligent devices", but i can see LOTS of people firing up requests to know how their chats were used, by whom and when, then wash/rinse/repeat down to any contractor and suing for shady opt-in's, etc...

    Now seriously, this won't go away until legislation is enacted to make it so that every personal data collection and processing ALWAYS need explicit consent with an option to "never bother me with this question again". With steep fines, if you fail to do so. Oh, wait, that's GDPR :D So, all it needs is that EVERYTIME they want to use said data for a new purpose, they have to explicitly say what they will be doing, by whom in case of a third party, and ask for a new consent for that purpose alone.

    Pretty sure that once forced to announce to world+dog (and their competitors), what they intend on doing, the data stream of personal eavesdropping runs dry quite fast...

    1. Teiwaz Silver badge

      Re: GDPR on the way...

      i can see LOTS of people firing up requests to know how their chats were used

      I can't.

      Certainly not as LOTS that there should be.

      I doubt there'd even be a blip on statistics compared to the population using these 'services'.

      Sometimes it just feels like the majority of the population are fine with being tracked like cattle and sheared regular.

      privacy? They might have herd of it, but are not bleating about it.

      1. Hans Acker
        Devil

        Re: GDPR on the way...

        If the sheep would mind being sheared, they would find a new sheperd, right? Right?

        Judging by the content on Facebook visible to me, "they" appear to be enjoying the services very much and accept them as useful magic, better not to think about it.

        And, to be an honest devil, where really is the problem with human-transcribed messages?

        Maybe some underpaid shlob gets to retell that funny thing you said to cheer up their unlucky co-worker who had to transcribe two assaults and a suicide note that same morning. So what?

        Your communications are going into the Big Data Base in the sky anyway. The fact that one or two humans also heard them doesn't matter even one bit.

        Now, did you know that processing of machine-read paper forms usually also involves humans to correct the letters and words the computer could not decipher? It's been going on for decades!

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