US Congress pretty much says Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg lied
Paid contractors using audio clips of Facebook users is under the microscope in the US, with Zuckerberg’s testimony called ‘at best, incomplete’
Washington/San Francisco — Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan cast doubt about Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony amid revelations that Facebook has been paying contractors to transcribe audio clips from its users.
Peters’s comments, which followed a Bloomberg report that the company used the transcriptions to improve its speech-recognition technology, come as smartphones and other microphone-enabled devices become ever-more ubiquitous.
“I am concerned that your previous testimony before Congress appears to have been, at best, incomplete,” Peters said in a letter sent on Thursday to the Facebook CEO that requested more information about the report.
During Zuckerberg’s testimony in April 2018, Peters asked the CEO whether “Facebook uses audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users”, according to the senator’s letter. Zuckerberg called the notion a “conspiracy theory” and denied the company uses the audio for its ads business.
Peters was referring to a theory that Facebook listens to conversations through a phone’s microphone and related permissions. Bloomberg reported on a narrower activity: contractors transcribed users’ audio messages from the Facebook Messenger chat app. Still, members of Congress from both parties called the company out this week and urged new statutes to combat threats to privacy.
“Congress needs to pass tough rules that ensure that Americans don’t have our privacy repeatedly violated by unaccountable corporations,” Senator Ron Wyden said in a statement. The Oregon Democrat, who, in 2018, circulated draft legislation that would impose steep fines and even prison time for executives who fail to adequately safeguard Americans’ personal data, said Zuckerberg “must be held personally responsible for Facebook’s serial privacy offences”.
Wyden also slammed the company’s recent $5bn settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over privacy violations. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, one of tech’s foremost Republican critics, asked in a series of tweets whether Facebook’s audio collection violated the agreement with the FTC.
On Wednesday, the Irish Data Protection Commission, which oversees Facebook in Europe, said it was examining the activity for possible violations of the EU’s strict privacy rules.
Federal privacy bill
Congress, inspired partially by Facebook’s high-profile lapses, has spent months working on a federal privacy bill that could also tackle the handling of voice recordings, but a key group of legislators working on the bill has fallen apart after it missed a number of self-imposed deadlines, and progress on the bill has stalled.
Facebook is not the only company that might be affected by new privacy rules. Bloomberg reported in April that Amazon employed a team of thousands of people around the world who listened to recordings picked up by Alexa and checked them for accuracy to improve the software. Humans were also brought in to review voice assistant recordings at Alphabet’s Google and Apple, which both courted controversy for not making the practice clear to users.
Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts cited Bloomberg’s reporting in July in announcing his plan to introduce a bill to allow the FTC “to seek penalties when digital personal assistants and smart doorbells record private conversations of users who haven’t said the device’s wake word or phrase”. Moulton, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said his bill would impact companies such as Amazon, which also owns the smart doorbell company Ring.
Senator Mark Warner said the latest revelations about Facebook’s audio collection “is yet further proof that consumers’ expectations of how their data is collected and used radically differ from what companies such as Facebook are actually doing”. Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, called for legislation to require companies to disclose more detail about their data collection, use and sharing.
With Matt Day