When you privately share something to a particular group of friends on Facebook, there is a chance others will read it. Reuters reports that Facebook employs a few hundred entrepreneurs to read all Facebook posts, including the private ones, to train the company's software. There is no way to opt out of this.
The outsourced team mentioned in the report works out of India and aims to tag the content to help Facebook build new features. Reuters explains the process in simple terms:
The workers categorize elements according to five "dimensions" that Facebook calls them. These include the subject of the post ̵1; is it food, for example, or a self-help or an animal? What is the occasion – a daily activity or a major life event? And what is the author's intention – to plan an event to inspire to do a joke?
The work is aimed at understanding how the types of things users put into their services change, Facebook said.
So tell your five closest friends that you ate a wedding at a wedding and intend to marry your significant other: the contractors will notice it and send the information back to Facebook. According to the report, the team sees "a random selection of text-based status updates, shared links, event records, stories, uploads, videos, and photos, including user-uploaded chats on Facebook's various messaging apps." Instagram posts are also analyzed by the team.
This news should probably not push you into complete freakout mode, since a layer of this size can only analyze a limited number of posts. Reuters says the current group of labelers is about 260 people considering about 700 posts a day. Still, most people find it disturbing that a random stranger in India can look at their private Instagram photos or read their private messenger chats at any time. The Reuters report does not indicate whether the posts being considered and marked are anonymous.
"We make it clear in our data policy that we use the information people give to Facebook to improve their experience and that we can work with service providers to help in this process," a Facebook spokesman told Reuters.
The practice of using random people on the other side of the globe to read your private communication is actually more common. A few weeks ago, we learned that Amazon employed a team of thousands to read Alexa record transcripts to improve the voice assistant and develop new features for the company. Google and Apple are also human resources teams to review recordings from their voice assistants. As experts told Gizmodo in April, human review is an important part of the training of AI software, and without it, products like Alexa wouldn't work as well. To what extent users know about this step in the development process and understand how to use products like Alexa or, well, Facebook depends on the firm building the software.
"It's a key part of what you need," Nipun Mathur, Facebook's product management director for AI, told content labeling. "I don't see the need go away."
Nevertheless, the idea that private Facebook or Instagram posts are read by strangers will come as a surprise to countless users. Privacy managers can point this out as evidence that the United States needs stronger federal privacy laws, perhaps similar to Europe's general data protection regulation (GDPR). Without stronger rules, someone says companies can continue to collect user data and even share it with third parties. Through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we know that Facebook has a history of doing this. Facebook also looks at a multi-trillion dollar from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for privacy violations.
So be sure what you put in. This has always been the case with Facebook and the Internet in general. But "private post" probably means something different than you on Facebook. After all, Facebook is letting random entrepreneurs read your private posts, which doesn't sound very private at all.