Facebook has been listening in on users of its Portal-branded smart display, using contractors, the company has admitted. According to recent reports, it plans to continue listening in going forward.
The reviews were intended to make the software and voice command recognition better, according to Facebook's hardware exec Andrew Bosworth. By analyzing how users talk to Portal, Facebook engineers can ensure that interactions are intuitive and that Portal responds appropriately.
But that involved recording commands and storing those on Facebook servers before sending them to hired-out contractors. Facebook tasked those workers with transcribing the clips of unwitting participants in the activity.
Turn the feature off or Facebook will still be listening
Facebook "paused" human review of recorded audio back in August. That was around the same time the company stopped collecting and reviewing similar clips from Facebook Messenger. The company says it stopped the recording because of public reactions to the practice.
The tech giant doesn't plan to stop the practice altogether, either. All new and previously released Portal devices will 'now' be recording audio once again.
The primary difference here is that once that starts back up, users will have the option to disable the reviews. That won't be turned on by default once in place though. Instead, users will need to navigate their device's settings to effectively opt-out of having their voice commands reviewed.
Facebook's decision to come clean about the collection and to change how it works is likely tied in with its desire to expand its products to new regions. Within the EU, for instance, it is expressly against the law to collect users' data without explicit permission. It's also against the rules to record data of underage users without a similar degree of consent from parents or guardians.
Now, prior to this, Facebook was already known to be collecting the clips. In the policies associated with the device, the company informs users that the clips will be recorded. But it does not inform users that those could be listened to by anybody outside of the company.
So hiring contractors for the purpose of listening in on Portal users could still cause problems for Facebook in those regions.
There are very few ways Facebook isn't collecting your data
Facebook's collection of audio clips from users of its Portal-branded smart displays will be disconcerting to privacy advocates. Circumstances could have been worse. The devices in question are also camera enabled. There haven't been any reports for now that those were used for collecting clips.
It is not surprising that Facebook would be listening in. The company receives user data from a number of places online and even from some Smart TVs. User data is among the chief ways the ad-supported company generates revenue. So it's no stranger to controversies surrounding its collection of data.
One of the very few ways that Facebook isn't apparently actively watching its users' every move is through its Oculus products. Similar practices are also in place at Google and Amazon, although typically those have been more transparent — if not turned off by default.