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Among the thousands upon thousands of words that make up the privacy policies of the tech giants, on

Tech firms must give up their awkward secret: Humans

Zero uses of the word in Amazon’s privacy policy for its Alexa voice assistant. The same goes for Apple’s Siri. And Google’s Assistant.

Facebook’s policy uses the word just once - to inform you that it will record data about your device to make sure that you are human.

Only Microsoft states what all of these other privacy policies arguably should: "Our processing of personal data … includes both automated and manual (human) methods of processing."

I point this out because the issue of human labour is a touchy subject in Silicon Valley right now; a fresh atmosphere of controversy for which companies only have themselves to blame.

First, Amazon was revealed to have been using human contractors to listen to clips picked up by Alexa. Then it was discovered Google was doing much the same, as were Apple. All three companies said they would halt the practice in response to the negative publicity.

And then Facebook, it was reported by Bloomberg last week, was using humans to listen to recordings gathered via its Messenger app. The company insisted proper consent had been obtained, but subsequent reporting found that wasn’t quite accurate. Well, it wasn’t at all accurate. Facebook didn’t say a word about it to users.

A final fallback

The stories have dropped like dominoes. Any voice-powered or “automated” system is now quite rightly being put under scrutiny. Do Microsoft contractors sometimes listen to audio captured via Skype? Yep. Do they listen to audio of gamers speaking through their Xbox? Sure do.

Google also had contractors listening to material gathered via its Assistant devices

For reporters, the low-hanging fruit is everywhere you look. I picked an “automated” service I use often - Expensify, the expenses-logging app that can “smartscan” receipts - and looked into it. Did humans have any role in how it worked? Yes, it turns out they do.

“SmartScan is a complex, multi-layered system that takes multiple approaches to extracting information from receipts,” the company told me.

“The final, fallback approach is that it is sent to one of our contractors. When we're unable to extract the required information from the receipt, the receipt is reviewed by one of our contractors to fill in the missing information.”

 

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