Facebook facing German data probe into voice transcriptions

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(Bloomberg) --Facebook Inc. is being probed by Hamburg’s data protection authority over transcribing audio from users of its services, adding to an investigation into Google’s automatic speech assistant.

Facebook “is currently the subject of a separate investigation” into transcription of human-to-machine and human-to-human communications, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection said in a press release on Monday. “Manual evaluation was used in Facebook Messenger to optimize the transcription function.”

The social network is facing intense regulatory scrutiny of its businesses in Europe, including an antitrust probe into its Libra cryptocurrency and numerous privacy investigations that could lead to hefty fines. Ireland, Facebook’s main privacy watchdog in the EU, has also asked the company for more information on news it has been paying contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users.

Facebook declined to immediately comment. The company previously said it had paused human review of the audio in early August.

Google said in a statement that it has met with the Hamburg regulator to discuss the issue.

“We’re currently assessing how we conduct audio reviews and help our users understand how data is used,” the company said in a statement. “These reviews help make voice recognition systems more inclusive of different accents and dialects across languages.”

The Irish data protection commissioner’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The issue of digital assistants and transcription of user commands has dogged several major technology companies. Tech platforms say the human analysis of voice chats helps train and correct mistakes, thereby improving responses to queries by users. But privacy advocates worryusers’ rights could be breached if terms of service about the practice are unclear or transcription occurs without their knowledge.

Hamburg has been probing Google over the recordings and the company has already agreed to pause the practice for at least three months. The Alphabet Inc. unit should warn users about the risk of accidental activation of speech recordings and seek consent for transcriptions, the regulator said.

Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. have also suspended or announced changes to human analysis of user commands, amid increasing global scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers over the privacy implications of the practice. The U.S. Congress is working on a federal privacy bill that could also tackle the handling of voice recordings.

More recently, Microsoft Corp. was found to engage in the practice, according to articles by Motherboard, highlighting the importance human review still plays in training machine-learning algorithms.

In a separate regulatory case Monday, Facebook won temporary suspension of a German antitrust order banning it from combining user data of various services. The Federal Cartel office, which issued the order, said it will appeal

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