Business / Tech

U.S. lawmakers pressure tech as devices capture conversations

Bloomberg

Members of Congress from both parties called out Facebook Inc. on Wednesday for paying contractors to transcribe audio clips from its users and urged new statutes to tackle the drumbeat of such revelations from across the tech industry.

The calls, which followed a Bloomberg report that the company was using the transcriptions to test its artificial intelligence speech-recognition, come as smartphones and other microphone-enabled devices become ever-more ubiquitous in homes, offices and schools.

“Congress needs to pass tough rules that ensure that Americans don’t have our privacy repeatedly violated by unaccountable corporations,” Sen. Ron Wyden said in a statement. The Oregon Democrat, who last year circulated draft legislation that would impose steep fines and even prison time for executives at corporations that fail to adequately safeguard Americans’ personal data, said that Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg “must be held personally responsible for Facebook’s serial privacy offenses.”

Wyden also slammed the company’s recent $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations. Sen. 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 and whether there “was a crime committed?”

On Wednesday, the Irish Data Protection Commission, which takes the lead in overseeing Facebook in Europe, also said it was examining the activity for possible violations of the EU’s strict privacy rules.

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 Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc., which both courted controversy for not making the practice clear to users.

Democratic Rep. 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 like Amazon, which also owns the smart doorbell company Ring.

Sen. 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 like 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.