Facebook has just become the latest big tech firm to confirm that external contractors are listening to audio of users’ private conversations. According to a Bloomberg report, Facebook has hired the contractors to listen in to users taking advantage of the audio to text functionality in its Messenger service.
The affected users had opted into having their Messenger chats transcribed, the firm said. However, Facebook Messenger users might not have known this was going to be done by humans–who were tasked with transcribing conversations to assess the accuracy of the tool.
Facebook policies are not explicit, simply stating: “We collect the content, communications and other information you provide when you use our products, including when you sign up for an account, create or share content and message or communicate with others.”
Thankfully, Facebook said it had paused the practice over a week ago, after finding out Google and Apple had stopped their use of human reviewers.
A Facebook spokesperson says: “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago.”
Facebook is listening: Why it matters
As of 2018 there were 1.3 billion users of Facebook Messenger, and it will add to concerns about the upcoming merging of this app with WhatsApp. It’s difficult to gauge how many people actually used the transcription functionality and what proportion of these were being listened to. But the audio snippets were apparently anonymized to mask people’s identities.
Facebook has “time and time again shown little regard for users’ privacy,” says security researcher Sean Wright. “While I understand there could be a legitimate need to have a human review the recordings from time to time, this should be made absolutely explicit to the user.”
It’s therefore a major concern that seemingly private Facebook Messenger conversations were listened to by a human being. It also adds fuel to the fire for the tin foil hat wearing Facebook users out there. There’s long been a (unproven) conspiracy that Facebook is somehow listening to people’s conversations via their phone mic, and serving them relevant advertising as a result.
It also sees Facebook become the fourth company to confirm that human contractors are listening to people’s private conversations. In July, it emerged that Apple contractors were listening to Siri conversations.
Earlier in July, it was revealed that Google was doing the same with its Home Assistant interactions. Back in April, it emerged that the Amazon assistant Alexa was recording sometimes private conversations.
This month, Vice’s Motherboard revealed that some Skype calls were also being listened to by Microsoft contractors.
So, what should you do? Facebook users should really know by now that using Messenger for private conversations isn’t very secure. “Facebook already admits to scanning Messenger content such as text, images and links for many reasons so transcribing audio or video content is really just an add on to what they are already doing,” points out Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET.
“Micro targeted advertising is their multimillion-dollar business so naturally there may be data within this audio which will add to people’s profile,” says Moore. “However, where this becomes a privacy matter or even grey area is, people wrongly tend to assume that this content is private from all eyes and ears.”
Personally, I don’t use Facebook Messenger at all: Services such as Signal are so much more secure for your daily communication. But is it time to delete Facebook entirely? Perhaps: After numerous hacks and privacy breaches, the Silicon Valley giant has done nothing to show it’s taking good care of your data.
If deleting your account entirely is too much, you could start with the app. Apple has already made a change that stops apps such as Facebook from collecting data in the background as it moves to try and improve user privacy.
If you care about your privacy, ethical hacker John Opdenakker recommends uninstalling the app. “If you still want to use Facebook and Messenger on your phone, at least check the app permissions and switch off access to the microphone if it’s enabled.”
You carry your phone around everywhere and that gives apps such as Facebook access to a lot of data. If you are concerned about that, why not just use it on your desktop instead?