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Facebook’s human-AI blend for audio transcription is now facing privacy scrutiny in Europe

Facebook’s lead privacy regulator in Europe is now asking the company for detailed information about the operation of a voice-to-text feature in Facebook’s Messenger app and how it complies with EU law.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that Facebook uses human contractors to transcribe app users’ audio messages — yet its privacy policy makes no clear mention of the fact that actual people might listen to your recordings.

A page on Facebook’s help center also includes a “note” saying “Voice to Text uses machine learning” — but does not say the feature is also powered by people working for Facebook listening in.

A spokesperson for Irish Data Protection Commission told us: “Further to our ongoing engagement with Google, Apple and Microsoft in relation to the processing of personal data in the context of the manual transcription of audio recordings, we are now seeking detailed information from Facebook on the processing in question and how Facebook believes that such processing of data is compliant with their GDPR obligations.”

Bloomberg’s report follows similar revelations about AI assistant technologies offered by other tech giants, including Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft — which have also attracted attention from European privacy regulators in recent weeks.

What this tells us is that the hype around AI voice assistants is still glossing over a far less high tech backend. Even as lashings of machine learning marketing guff have been used to cloak the ‘mechanical turk’ components (i.e. humans) required for the tech to live up to the claims.

This is a very old story indeed. To wit: A full decade ago, a UK startup called Spinvox, which had claimed to have advanced voice recognition technology for converting voicemails to text messages, was reported to be leaning very heavily on call centers in South Africa and the Philippines… staffed by, yep, actual humans.

Returning to present day ‘cutting-edge’ tech, following Bloomberg’s report Facebook said it suspended human transcriptions earlier this month — joining Apple and Google in halting manual reviews of audio snippets for their respective voice AIs. (Amazon has since added an opt out to the Alexa app’s settings.)

We asked Facebook where in the Messenger app it had been informing users that human contractors might be used to transcribe their voice chats/audio messages; and how it collected Messenger users’ consent to this form of data processing — prior to suspending human reviews.

The company did not respond to our questions. Instead a spokesperson provided us with the following statement: “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago.”

Facebook also described the audio snippets that it sent to contractors as masked and de-identified; said they were only collected when users had opted in to transcription on Messenger; and were only used for improving the transcription performance of the AI.

It also reiterated a long-standing rebuttal by the company to user concerns about general eavesdropping by Facebook, saying it never listens to people’s microphones without device permission nor without explicit activation by users.

How Facebook gathers permission to process data is a key question, though.

The company has recently, for example, used a manipulative consent flow in order to nudge users in Europe to switch on facial recognition technology — rolling back its previous stance, adopted in response to earlier regulatory intervention, of switching the tech off across the bloc.

So a lot rests on how exactly Facebook has described the data processing at any point it is asking users to consent to their voice messages being reviewed by humans (assuming it’s relying on consent as its legal basis for processing this data).

Bundling consent into general T&Cs for using the product is also unlikely to be compliant under EU privacy law, given that the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation requires consent to be purpose limited, as well as fully informed and freely given.

If Facebook is relying on legitimate interests to process Messenger users’ audio snippets in order to enhance its AI’s performance it would need to balance its own interests against any risk to people’s privacy.

Voice AIs are especially problematic in this respect because audio recordings may capture the personal data of non-users too — given that people in the vicinity of a device (or indeed a person on the other end of the phone line who’s leaving you a message) could have their personal data captured without ever having had the chance to consent to Facebook contractors getting to hear it.

Leaks of Google Assistant snippets to the Belgian press recently highlighted both the sensitive nature of recordings and the risk of reidentification posed by such recordings — with journalists able to identify some of the people in the recordings.

Multiple press reports have also suggested contractors employed by tech giants are routinely overhearing intimate details captured via a range of products that include the ability to record audio and stream this personal data to the cloud for processing.

Huawei’s new OS isn’t an Android replacement… yet

If making an Android alternative was easy, we’d have a lot more of them. Huawei’s HarmonyOS won’t be replacing the mobile operating system for the company any time soon, and Huawei has made it pretty clear that it would much rather go back to working with Google than go at it alone.

Of course, that might not be an option.

The truth is that Huawei and Google were actually getting pretty chummy. They’d worked together plenty, and according to recent rumors, were getting ready to release a smart speaker in a partnership akin to what Google’s been doing with Lenovo in recent years. That was, of course, before Huawei was added to a U.S. “entity list” that ground those plans to a halt.

Google launches ‘Live View’ AR walking directions for Google Maps

Google is launching a beta of its augmented reality walking directions feature for Google Maps, with a broader launch that will be available to all iOS and Android devices that have system-level support for AR. On iOS, that means ARKit-compatible devices, and on Android, that means any smartphones that support Google’s ARcore, so long as ‘Street View’ is also available where you are.

Originally revealed earlier this year, Google Maps’ augmented reality feature has been available in an early alpha mode to both Google Pixel users and to Google Maps Local Guides, but starting today it’ll be rolling out to everyone (this might take a couple weeks depending on when you actually get pushed the update). We took a look at some of the features available with the early version in March, and it sounds like the version today should be pretty similar, including the ability to just tap on any location nearby in Maps, tap the ‘Directions’ button and then navigating to ‘Walking,’ then tapping ‘Live View’ which should appear newer the bottom of the screen.

Live View
The Live View feature isn’t designed with the idea that you’ll hold up your phone continually as you walk – instead, in provides quick, easy and super useful orientation, by showing you arrows and big, readable street markers overlaid on the real scene in front of you. That makes it much, much easier to orient yourself in unfamiliar settings, which is hugely beneficial when traveling in unfamiliar territory.

Google Maps is also getting a number of other upgrades, including a one-stop ‘Reservations’ tab in Maps for all your stored flights, hotel stays and more – plus it’s backed up offline. This, and a new redesigned Timeline which is airing on Android devices only for now, should also be rolling out to everyone over the next few weeks.

Facebook sues app developer over malware-filled ‘antivirus’ app

Facebook is going after more shady app developers for abusing its platform.

The social media company filed a lawsuit against two app developers it says used malware-ridden Android apps to engage in “click injection fraud.” According to Facebook, the developer used malware embedded in its Android apps to fake clicks on ads to make money off unsuspecting users who downloaded their apps.

This lawsuit is the latest example of Facebook aggressively pursuing shady app developers who break its rules in the wake of Cambridge Analytica. But unlike Cambridge Analytica, which used ill-gotten Facebook data from a personality quiz app, it appears these developers were attempting some good old-fashioned ad fraud. 

The apps in question came from Singapore-based JediMobi and Hong Kong developer LionMobi, and are marketed as calculator and anti-virus apps. But they also “installed malware designed to intercept ad-related data and inject fake clicks in order to deceive Facebook’s Audience network and Google’s AdMob into crediting the the apps for fake clicks that did not occur,” according to the lawsuit.

The two apps, “Power Clean – Antivirus & Phone Cleaner App,” and “Calculator Plus,” have been installed millions of times, according to their listings in Google’s Play Store. Both apps were still available at the time of publication. Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Facebook didn’t say how much money the app developers made from these schemes, but it was apparently lucrative. During a two-month period in 2018, the “calculator” app generated more than 40 million ad impressions and 17 million clicks, according to the lawsuit. The supposed antivirus app generated fake clicks via Google’s AdMob.

Ad fraud is nothing new, and these kinds of schemes have been particularly prevalent in the Google Play Store for years. But the fact that Facebook is suing both developers in addition to booting them off of their platform signals how much more seriously the company takes app developers that break its rules. The company previously sued a South Korean app developer it says refused to cooperate with its investigation into its data policies. 

“Our lawsuit is one of the first of its kind against this practice,” Jessica Romero, Facebook’s director of platform enforcement, said in a statement. “Facebook detected this fraud as part of our continuous efforts to investigate and stop abuse by app developers and any abuse of our advertising products.”

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What tech gets right about healthcare

We often hear how tech just doesn’t get the healthcare industry but how is it helping where government and big pharma can’t?

Why is tech still aiming for the healthcare industry? It seems full of endless regulatory hurdles or stories of misguided founders with no knowledge of the space, running headlong into it, only to fall on their faces.

Theranos is a prime example of a founder with zero health background or understanding of the industry — and just look what happened there! The company folded not long after founder Elizabeth Holmes came under criminal investigation and was barred from operating in her own labs for carelessly handling sensitive health data and test results.

But sometimes tech figures it out. It took years for 23andMe to breakthrough FDA regulations — it’s since more than tripled its business and moved into drug discovery.

And then there’s Oscar Health, which first made a mint on Obamacare and has since ventured into Medicare. Combined with Bright, the two health insurance startups have pulled in a whopping $3 billion so far.

It’s easy to shake our fists at fool-hardy founders hoping to cash in on an industry that cannot rely on the old motto “move fast and break things.” But it doesn’t have to be the code tech lives or dies by.

So which startups have the mojo to keep at it and rise to the top? Venture capitalists often get to see a lot before deciding to invest. So we asked a few of our favorite health VC’s to share their insights.

Phin Barnes – First Round Capital