As concerns around data privacy continue to multiply across countries, the responsibility of technology giants is being questioned with each privacy breach incident and reports of surreptitious listening to voice commands, conversations and more. The latest attempt, however, is slightly different, as social media Facebook wants to pay users to submit recordings of their conversations to improve services.
While the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google continue to use samples of conversations to improve their services, Facebook is openly asking for data and is also rewarding users with a token amount for the same. As per a report by The Verge, Facebook is building a new programme called “Pronunciations” in its Viewpoints market research app for US-based users. Select users will be able to record the phrase “Hey Portal” followed by the first name of a friend from their friends’ list. The user will have to record each statement twice for up to 10 friends and will get rewarded at the end of it.
After every set, the user will get 200 points in the Viewpoints app, which can be cashed out for $5 reward via PayPal once users have accrued 1000 points. The Pronunciations programme will be available to US users over the age of 18 with more than 75 Facebook friends.
Facebook reportedly said that the voice recordings users provide will not be connected to their Facebook profile and that the company doesn’t share Viewpoints activity on Facebook or other Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp or Instagram without permission.
Should Users Trust Facebook With Voice Data?
While Facebook claims the recordings will be used to offer better speech recognition services, when seen in the light of security breaches on Facebook, it does raise questions of ethics. Is paying users the right way to go about getting them to submit data?
It is to be noted that Facebook was reportedly paying third-party contractors to transcribe and listen to users’ conversations on its Messenger app. The company also used its earlier research apps to lure unsuspecting users into giving location data, even when such data has been denied to the Facebook app. One does wonder what hidden processes the new Viewpoints app will be using.
However, Facebook isn’t the only one toying with the user data and its safety. Over the last year, we came across multiple cases where tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Google etc came to headlines for eavesdropping on its users.
In the past, such as when the audio recording collections was reported publicly, Facebook had said that affected users had selected the option to have their voice chats transcribed in their Messenger settings, and added that the data associated with the recordings was anonymised.
Most recently in December 2019, personal data consisting of user IDs, phone numbers and names of 267.1 Mn Facebook users were left exposed on a database online. This database could have been accessed by anyone on the web without a password or any form of authentication and hence, it could be used for SMS spams and phishing attacks.
Such activities have proved costly for Facebook too. This month itself, Facebook reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit arising from a data breach in September 2018 affecting an estimated 29 Mn people. Facebook agreed to make concrete improvements to its security practices and to undergo an annual independent assessment to ensure compliance with improved security practices. Last year, it was told to pay $5 Bn as fine for its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Interestingly, Facebook is yet to launch its Portal device in India, for which it is running the experiment in the US. Facebook’s approach to voice collection may not pass muster under India’s Personal Data Protection Bill, which is being discussed in the parliament at the moment. The bill has proposed that companies should delete any personal data collected from data principals or users once the purpose of the data processing is completed.
With Facebook’s troubles with regulators in India, it would be interesting to see if such research-oriented apps make their way to the Indian market. It’s not just Facebook though which has shied away from bringing such apps to the Indian market. Apple, too, has launched Research apps only in the US market for healthcare research.