Facebook quizzed by watchdog for listening to users' chats

Facebook previously confirmed that it had been transcribing users' audio and said it will no longer do so, following scrutiny into other companies.
Facebook previously confirmed that it had been transcribing users' audio and said it will no longer do so, following scrutiny into other companies.PHOTO: REUTERS

LUXEMBOURG (BLOOMBERG) - Facebook Inc. risks another spat with European Union privacy watchdogs after Bloomberg reported that the social-media giant paid contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services.

The Irish Data Protection Commission said it is "seeking detailed information from Facebook on the processing in question" after the company confirmed it had been transcribing audio from users in the Messenger app. The Irish regulator, which takes the lead in overseeing Facebook in Europe, said it is already looking at similar data processing by Google, Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

"We are now seeking detailed information from Facebook on the processing in question and how Facebook believes that such processing of data is compliant with their" obligations under the EU's privacy rules, the Irish regulator said in an emailed statement.

The company didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the Irish review. It previously confirmed that it had been transcribing users' audio and said it will no longer do so, following scrutiny into other companies.

Facebook shares were down 2.2 per cent at 10.02 am (10.02pm Singapore time) in New York trading.

Amazon.com Inc., Google, Apple and now Facebook 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.

 

It is not just the Irish regulator, where Google, Apple and Facebook have their main EU base, which has started digging deeper into possible privacy violations. Officials in the United States and elsewhere in Europe are also probing processing by human reviewers employed to listen to voice commands recorded by digital assistants.