Is Facebook listening to me? Maybe, if you used Messenger’s audio chat function

Amelia Heathman

One of the greatest tech conspiracy theories is that Facebook is listening to your conversations and using it to serve you ads on the platform, as well as Instagram.

The tech podcast Reply All did an excellent episode debunking this theory but it still remains that there can be creepy instances whereby conversations have led to eerily-similar ads popping up online.

Unfortunately, Facebook’s own practises have now added some fuel to that theory. According to an investigation by Bloomberg, the company paid hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe audio clips people made using Facebook Messenger.

Sources who were employed to do the transcribing said they sometimes had to listen to chats featuring vulgar content and didn’t know why Facebook needed them transcribing. Facebook has said it has stopped the practice now, and that users affected had selected the option in the Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed.

Chats were anonymised, whilst contractors were being employed to check whether the Facebook AI correctly interpreted the messages.

Facebook is the latest in a string of tech companies to be found to be using human contractors to transcribe human audio to check it against AI. Amazon, Apple and Google have all been found to be using the same practise, though the companies have all stopped the practice following media reports on the matter.

Owners of Amazon's Echo range of devices had their conversations listened to by contractors (Amazon)

Google has said it will stop the practice of listening to and transcribing recordings for at least three months across Europe whilst Hamburg's commissioner for data practices investigates what's been going on. Apple has said it is reviewing the process and in the future will allow users to opt-out of their conversations with its AI, Siri, to be used for training in this way.

An Amazon spokesperson said: “We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.”

One of the reasons people have avoided buying smart speakers in the past is because of the security concerns including that hackers or the government could listen to their private conversations. However, the case with Facebook Messenger demonstrates that it isn’t just smart speakers you need to worry about, but the apps you use on your phone too.