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Senator doubts Zuckerberg's 2018 testimony about Facebook listening

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a Senate hearing in April, 2018.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By BEN BRODY AND SARAH FRIE | Bloomberg | Published: August 15, 2019

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., cast doubt about Mark Zuckerberg's congressional testimony amid revelations that Facebook has been paying contractors to transcribe audio clips from its users.

Peters' 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 Thursday to the Facebook chief executive officer 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," 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 who fail to adequately safeguard Americans' personal data, said 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. R-Mo., 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.

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.

Bloomberg's Matt Day contributed.
 

 

A protester holds up a sign during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Senate hearing in April, 2018.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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