Friday

3rd Apr 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". 

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or join as a group

  • (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.

EU defends US data pact, as Facebook court case opens

An Austrian privacy campaigner vs Facebook over the future of data transfers to the US case opened at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on Tuesday. The European Commission, meanwhile, says the Privacy Shield pact is working fine.

New anti-trust complaint looms over Microsoft

At least three security software companies “met several times” with the European Commission to complain about Microsoft’s alleged abuse of its market position. A formal case could follow.

EU fines Google €2.4 bn over online shopping

Brussels says Google has abused a near-monopoly position in online searches to favour its shopping service, but the US company said Brussels cannot prove the charges.

MEPs: 'Mass surveillance' still possible under US privacy deal

A delegation of MEPs from the civil liberties committee have warned of the remaining "deficiencies" of the EU-US 'privacy shield' framework, amid concerns over the efficiency of this mechanism to protect EU citizens' fundamental rights.

EU backtracks on plans to ban facial recognition

The European Commission came under fire on Wednesday for ruling out a moratorium on facial recognition. Instead, it proposed a public debate with stakeholders to determine when this technology might be used.

MEPs urge binding rules for common chargers by July

MEPs demanded the European Commission ensure immediate EU regulatory action on common chargers for all mobile devices by July, enabling users to easily re-use old devices and reducing e-waste.

Online platforms need regulating, Jourova warns

The EU commission vice-president pledged to tackle disinformation by regulating platforms and cleaning up online political advertising rules. She also pointed to Russia and China as wanting to undermine European democracy.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking Europe’s Economy Circular – the time is now
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  3. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  4. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms

Latest News

  1. Court: Three countries broke EU law on migrant relocation
  2. Journalism hit hard by corona crisis
  3. EU fighting shortages and faulty medical supplies
  4. New EU navy operation to keep migrant details secret
  5. MEP: Constituents are our window into this tragedy
  6. Without European patriotism, EU decline is inevitable
  7. EU cancels April Fool's 'fake news'
  8. A coronavirus 'Marshall Plan' alone won't be nearly enough

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us