Ireland investigating Facebook's audio review system

Facebook's lead regulator in the European Union is seeking information on how it handled data during the manual transcription of users' audio recordings, Ireland's Data Protection Commission said on Wednesday.

Facebook until recently carried out human review of private audio in order to improve artificial intelligence systems to transcribe accurately, a representative said in an emailed statement on Wednesday, adding the practice was common in the industry.

The audio snippets in question were masked to avoid revealing anyone's identity and the company never listened to people's microphones without explicit activation, the statement said.

"Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," the representative said. Facebook, which has been facing broad criticism from lawmakers and regulators over its privacy practices, did not respond to a report published by Bloomberg that said outside contractors had been used to transcribe the clips.

Ireland's Data Protection Commission (DPC), Facebook's lead regulator in the European Union, already has eight individual probes into the US social media giant, plus two into its WhatsApp subsidiary and one into Facebook-owned Instagram.

"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," the commission said in an emailed statement.

Under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy rules, regulators have the power to impose fines for violations of up to 4 percent of a company's global revenue or €20 million, whichever is higher. Bloomberg, citing the company, reported that the users who were affected chose the option in its Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed.

The contractors were checking whether Facebook's artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages, it said.