Wednesday

15th Jul 2020

All 'big five' tech firms listened to private conversations

The 'Big five' tech companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft) have all been recording and listening to people's private conversations, at least until very recently. 

Their reason was always "improving services". 

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  • (Photo: Amy Osborne / Getty Images)

Facebook was recently found to have been listening to the personal conversations of up to 50 European citizens. 

Although the revealed number is small, the real number of cases might be much higher.

And for his part, the commissioner for data protection and freedom of information in Hamburg, Germany, Johannes Caspar, said in a press release that "the use of automatic speech assistants [such as Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant] is proving to be highly risky for the privacy of those affected."

The use of these devices in the EU "must comply with the data protection requirements of the GDPR," he warned, referring to an EU law called the general data protection regulation.

Facebook under scrutiny 

On 13 August, Bloomberg reported that Facebook had hired people to listen to its users' audio conversations on Facebook Messenger. 

Facebook was just the latest company to admit they were listening to recordings of its users without their consent or knowledge. 

"Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," a Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian mid-August.

Earlier, the giant social network stated that users in the European Union had not been listened to. 

But the data protection authority in Hamburg confirmed in a press release this week that the manual evaluation of users' private conversations used by Facebook is "currently the subject of an investigation".

In an emailed statement, the Irish privacy regulator, responsible for Facebook activities in Europe said Facebook had transcribed manually the audio clips of fewer than 50 citizens across 14 different European countries. 

According to a Facebook spokesperson, "this could have happened because they were sending a voice message to a US user who had the transcription feature enabled".

Hamburg and Irish authorities agreed that this case "must be taken over by the respective national data protection authorities" of those 14 countries whose citizens were affected.

"Each of the relevant data protection authorities has individual competence to examine the matter if they so wish," said a spokesperson from the Irish Data Protection Commission.

A spokeswoman of the European Commission said that "[the Commission] always care[s] about citizens' data being protected and safe," adding that this was the main reason why EU data protection regulation was reinforced in 2016.

"We expect Facebook Inc. to support the clarification and immediately open a direct information channel to the affected authorities in the EU," said a spokesperson from the data protection commission in Hamburg.

Everything is recorded

All the 'Big five' tech companies have faced the scrutiny of its businesses in Europe this year regarding their listening activities to user's conversations.

In April, Amazon was reported to have a team of employees reviewing and analysing secretly recorded audios of users' conversations with Alexa, the voice assistant of Amazon Echo.

The company explained that these practices were "part of quality assurance".

However, Amazon has escaped the wrath of Hamburg's and Irish data protection commissioners because this case belonged to Luxembourg authorities.

During the same month, it became clear that Google carried out the same type of "quality control", when more than 1,000 audio clips of personal conversations recorded via Google Assistant were leaked.

"We have made clear to Google that essential data protection requirements for the operation of the Google Assistant are currently not met," Hamburg commissioner Caspar said on Monday (26 August) in a press release.

A spokesperson from the Hamburg commission added that "ultimately, it is up to Google to come to a GDPR compliant solution," which will be based mostly on proper consent.

In an insight into the scope of the affair, in the first quarter of 2019 only, there were 3.35m smart speakers shipped to Europe, according to an estimation of the research firm International Data Corporation (IDC).

Additionally, Apple's employees were also caught listening to personal conversations like "confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex."

Apple's Contractors in Cork were expected to each listen to about 1,000 recordings from Siri on every shift, then transcribe and grade them based on several factors, such as whether the activation of Siri was accidental, reported the Irish Examiner last week.

Most of the users were from Canada, Australia, or the UK, but "there was a smaller team working on users with European languages."

More than 300 employees have lost their jobs at Cork's facility since Apple announced the decision to suspend its listening activities on 2 August.

Apart from Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple, Microsoft was also caught listening to Skype and Cortana voice recordings of its users to train Microsoft's virtual assistant.

Microsoft thinks they are complying with GDPR since their voice data is anonymised, but the Irish data authorities have confirmed that they are in contact with Microsoft to clarify the issue.

Facebook and Apple have paused human review of audio clips across the globe.

Google has only stopped it in the EU, while Amazon and Microsoft offer its users to give consent for listening activities and allow them to delete the voice data that the company hold on them.

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The commission's two-year review also indicates that the authorities based in Ireland and Luxembourg - European headquarters to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon - need a substantial boost in resources.

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