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Facebook Paid Contractors to Transcribe Users’ Audio Chats



Facebook Inc. has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to people with knowledge of the work.

The work has rattled the contract employees, who are not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained — only to transcribe it, said the people, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. They’re hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but do not know why Facebook needs them transcribed, the people said.

On Wednesday, the Irish Data Protection Commission, which takes the lead in overseeing Facebook in Europe, said it was examining the activity for possible violations of the EU’s strict privacy rules.

Shares of the social-media giant were down 1.3% at 7:49 a.m. in New York during pre-market trading.

Facebook confirmed that it had been transcribing users’ audio and said it will no longer do so, following scrutiny into other companies. “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” the company said Tuesday. The company said the users who were affected chose the option in Facebook’s Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed. The contractors were checking whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages, which were anonymized.

Big tech companies including Inc. and Apple Inc. have come under fire for collecting audio snippets from consumer computing devices and subjecting those clips to human review, a practice that critics say invades privacy. Bloomberg first reported in April that Amazon had a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa audio requests with the goal of improving the software, and that similar human review was used for Apple’s Siri and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Assistant. Apple and Google have since said they no longer engage in the practice and Amazon said it will let users opt out of human review.

The social networking giant, which just completed a $5 billion settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission after a probe of its privacy practices, has long denied that it collects audio from users to inform ads or help determine what people see in their news feeds. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg denied the idea directly in Congressional testimony.

“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 told U.S. Senator Gary Peters in April 2018. “We don’t do that.”

In follow-up answers for Congress, the company said it “only accesses users’ microphone if the user has given our app permission and if they are actively using a specific feature that requires audio (like voice messaging features.)” The Menlo Park, California-based company doesn’t address what happens to the audio afterward.

Facebook hasn’t disclosed to users that third parties may review their audio. That’s led some contractors to feel their work is unethical, according to the people with knowledge of the matter.

At least one firm reviewing user conversations is TaskUs Inc., a Santa Monica, California-based outsourcing firm with outposts around the world, the people said. Facebook is one of TaskUs’s largest and most important clients, but employees aren’t allowed to mention publicly who their work is for. They call the client by the code name “Prism.”

Facebook also uses TaskUs to review content that’s in possible violation of policies. There are also TaskUs teams working on election preparation and screening political ads, though some of those employees were recently moved to the new transcription team.

“Facebook asked TaskUs to pause this work over a week ago, and it did,” TaskUs said in response to a request for comment about the transcription work.

The Facebook data-use policy, revised last year to make it more understandable for the public, includes no mention of audio. It does, however, say Facebook will collect “content, communications and other information you provide” when users “message or communicate with others.”

Facebook says its “systems automatically process content and communications you and others provide to analyze context and what’s in them.” It includes no mention of other human beings screening the content. In a list of “types of third parties we share information with,” Facebook doesn’t mention a transcription team, but vaguely refers to “vendors and service providers who support our business” by “analyzing how our products are used.”

The role of humans in analyzing recordings underscores the limits of artificial intelligence in its ability to recognize words and speech patterns. Machines are getting better at the task but sometimes still struggle with the unfamiliar. That some of the contractors have found the recorded content disturbing is further reminder of the human toll of moderating content on Facebook, the world’s biggest social network.

Facebook first started allowing Messenger users to have their audio transcribed in 2015. “We’re always working on ways to make Messenger more useful,” David Marcus, the executive in charge of the service at the time, said in a Facebook post.


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Tech News

Apple should be supporting education, not attacking competition




While launching a $2,300 laptop, Apple’s Schiller says Chromebooks won’t help students succeed

At the end of an interview with CNET‘s Roger Cheng, Apple’s Phil Schiller, the interim Head of Communications since Apple’s VP of Comms left abruptly in September, took a swipe at Chromebooks. While touting the specific benefits of the Swift Playground and other Apple-specific educational features available on the iPad, Schiller made the off-hand claim that Chromebooks were being used mostly as testing tools and that students who rely on Chromebooks would be less likely to succeed.

There is attacking your competition, and then there is attacking your competition’s customers. This is neither of those. This is an Apple executive predicting doom for school children who use a competing platform and any of the dozens of devices that operate it. Schiller’s logic supposes that if you buy Chromebooks for your students, then you only care about testing and you aren’t buying the cutting-edge learning tools that will help kids achieve their best results. Ergo, they will not succeed, to paraphrase.

Futuresource Ed Purchases

Source: Edweek

Education is a competitive market, and Apple is not doing well. In the U.S., Chromebooks dominate sales while Apple is slipping. Last year, Chromebooks grabbed 60% of mobile computer sales for education, while Apple slipped from 19.5% to 17.7%, according to an Edweek report on Futuresource Consulting). If you remember a time when schools were dominated by Apple II desktops and stout Mac Classics, then you either remember Apple’s heyday (or you more likely lived in an affluent school district).

The truth is that the education market doesn’t have the time or patience for petty squabbles between platform spokespeople. Schiller’s jabs at Chromebooks are not meant for education buyers, they are meant for business market analysts and media. Educators don’t have the luxury of making buying decisions or comparing the benefits of iPad OS versus Chrome OS. They simply need more technology — in school, in the home — everywhere.

The education market doesn’t have the time or patience for petty squabbles.

In 2017, Futuresource said the sub-$300 computer segment accounted for 68.5% of the education market. The vast majority of classroom computers need to be cheap, first and foremost. Without debating the total cost, it’s easy to see that Apple is targeting the initial pricing as it launched its iPad 10.2 tablet, landing in this price range with education bulk discounts. Still, unlike Chromebooks, the iPad also needs a keyboard, and maybe a pen.

Schiller doubled-down on this line of attack later in the day on Twitter. In promoting the CNET story, which promoted Apple’s responsive design team and the new flagship professional laptop, Schiller again implied that Apple’s competitor only cares about helping students take a test, not about real success.

Philip Schiller@pschiller

Every child has the ability to succeed — helping them to do that has always been our mission. In the full conversation with CNET, we discussed giving kids and teachers the content, curriculum and tools they need to learn, explore and grow. Not just to take a test.9279:48 PM – Nov 13, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy436 people are talking about this

It’s not the best time for Schiller to be making attacks that paint his competitor as a cause of student failure. While there is certainly market share to be gained by stealing sales from Chromebooks, there is an even larger opportunity to help the remainder of the market that is behind in all technology, whether it be iPadOS, Chrome OS, Windows, or otherwise.

Unfortunately, these disparities fall on familiar socio-economic fault lines. Rich suburban communities are ahead of poor communities in terms of technology access. If you are a student in a family with an income below the poverty threshold (around $25,000), there is a 20% chance that you have no broadband internet access at home and possibly no dial-up option. An eighth-grader who is eligible for a free school lunch is five times more likely to have never used a computer than students whose higher income level excludes them from free lunches. Wealthier 12th graders surveyed in 2015 were 50% more likely to have seen their first computer in Kindergarten than their lower-income peers.

Educators are scrappy and work with whatever resources they can muster.

As a former full-time high school teacher, I used Chromebooks, iPads, MacBooks, Windows laptops, and more. They all do well for education, but at the same time, maybe none of them work at all. Some of the highest-profile technology buying programs have produced lackluster results. Still, no educator is suggesting we give up technology.

Educators are scrappy and work with whatever resources they can muster. Until every student has equitable access to technology, I’d rather see technology executives offering ideas for helping technology work together to help students succeed, rather than threatening our students with failure if they use the wrong laptop.


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Tech News

Apple TV+’s head of scripted and unscripted shows has left the company




Apple has lost one its streaming service’s top personnel, just a couple of weeks after TV+ went live. According to Deadline, Kim Rozenfeld, the head of current scripted programming and unscripted content for Apple TV+, has stepped down from his position. Deadline’s report didn’t expound on the circumstances behind Rozenfeld’s departure, but it did say that he signed a first-look deal with Apple for his production company, Half Full Studios. His LinkedIn page also says he left Apple this month, and that he has a “development, producing and consultant deal with Apple TV+ for scripted and documentary series” under his company.

Rozenfeld was one of the first people from Sony TV that Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht (former Sony TV heads) hired when they went to Apple. There was clearly a shift of some sort in the division after launch, though it’s still unclear what that means for TV+. Now that he’s exited, the service will combine its development and current programming teams under a single group of executives. Matt Cherniss, who was Rozenfeld’s counterpart as head of scripted development, will now also head up the service’s current scripted series team.


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Tech News

Apple pulls app that let you stalk people you follow on Instagram




In October, Instagram phased out the “Following” tab. That’s because it shared a lot of information about what your friends and the people you follow were doing on the social network — maybe too much — and Instagram said some people were surprised their activity was showing up there. And now, the company is apparently keeping others from re-creating that idea: Apple has removed Like Patrol from the App Store, according to CNET.

At the end of October, Instagram sent a cease-and-desist letter to Like Patrol, an app described by its maker as the Following tab “on steroids,” and on Saturday, Apple reportedly removed it from its iOS marketplace entirely.

Like Patrol went beyond the Following tab in some potentially creepy ways, with a number of features that could let users stalk someone’s behavior on Instagram without them knowing. CNET reports that the app could notify you if someone you followed interacted with a post from a man or a woman, for example, and the app’s makers apparently claimed to “have an algorithm to detect if they were posts from attractive people.”

CNET reports Like Patrol was able to track Instagram users by scraping their public profiles for data — which violates Instagram’s policies, according to a Facebook spokesperson who spoke with CNET in October. Apple told CNET it removed Like Patrol for violating the company’s guidelines, but didn’t explain further.


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