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

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

by David Gilbert
15 August 2019, 3:00am

Press Association via AP Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Facebook isn't randomly turning on your microphone to sell you more targeted ads, as some conspiracy theories have asserted—but on Tuesday, the social media giant admitted that it has, in fact, been listening in on some 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. There is no indication that Facebook has used the information it collected to sell ads.

“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.

READ: Facebook just paid a $5 billion fine for privacy breaches. Now it wants access to your brain.

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.

READ: Facebook misled journalists about how bad the Cambridge Analytica scandal was

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 agreed to 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.”

Cover: File photo dated 02/04/19 of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who will remain as chairman of the social networking giant after an attempt to strip him of the position put forward by a group of shareholders was rejected. Issue date: Friday May 31, 2019. Niall Carson/PA Wire URN:43229063 (Press Association via AP Images)

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