Because human operators are used...
July 29, 2009 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Voicemail-to-text firm Spinvox strenuously denied accusations that they infringed privacy standards by actually having the voicemails transcribed by human operators in low-wage countries.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what their own patent applications say they do.

Also, apparently they aren't paying the transcribers...
posted by Skeptic (49 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
The last link in the OP tells of a subscriber who actually got a "Help, I'm trapped in a transcription sweatshop" message from one of the operators.

This is absolutely fascinating and amazing and awful all at the same time.
posted by Spatch at 10:19 AM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


this is only a story if the minimally sourced and sensational story in the last few paragraphs in the last link are true.

otherwise, it sounds like Spinvox is doing just what they promise. of course humans have to listen to the messages sometimes for both QA and R&D. And not only are Spinvox up front about that, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who is paying a third party to convert media for them believes that their privacy rights extend to the point where that third party is expected to avert their eyes and cover their ears. If Spinvox were selling the messages that would be another story.
posted by 256 at 10:19 AM on July 29, 2009


I love these parts:

SpinVox uses Humans to step in when the automated parts of our service need help.

followed by...

Any messages that need analysis for further conversion are COMPLETELY anonymised before being sent out of SpinVox data centres to QC houses whether in the UK or otherwise.

How do they ensure any personally identifying information is removed before sending things to humans, if by definition they are only sending things to humans that their machine can't interpret?
posted by FishBike at 10:20 AM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


"We are employees of Spinvox. Since voicemail to text message service has started by Spinvox we are converting your messages here in Pakistan. You can confirm please we are in real trouble. Please for God sake."

That is fucking brilliant.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:23 AM on July 29, 2009


Wow. As if I needed another reason to not have anything of a personal nature in 'the cloud'. Bad enough when the cloud is free; am I correct in understanding people are paying for this (even if SpinVox is allegedly a couple months behind on paying its employees)?
posted by Pragmatica at 10:27 AM on July 29, 2009


"Well, just because we patented the process doesn't mean we'd use it."

Yes, yes. That reasoning makes perfect sense.
posted by boo_radley at 10:28 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Foreigners? They should use prisoners.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:29 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, this makes me a little squicky about google's voicemail transcription...
posted by boo_radley at 10:31 AM on July 29, 2009


Additionally, when I worked as a corporate concierge, we had one client who basically wanted us to perform this kind of voicemail transcription service.

Our response was "So, you want us to call your voice mail... several times a day... use your own personal voice mail password... listen to and transcribe your messages, which could contain very personal or proprietary financial information... and then send the transcripts to you over an insecure email protocol?"

That request ticket was eventually "Closed - Unfulfilled" and remained that way.

I still can't wrap my mind around the concept that there are people in this world who actually consider themselves so busy that they are perfectly okay with giving up personal privacy if it means not having to check their own goddamn messages when the little red light goes blinky-blinky.
posted by Spatch at 10:32 AM on July 29, 2009


otherwise, it sounds like Spinvox is doing just what they promise.

They seem to promise anonymous machine transcription, and they seem to be providing human transcription, which is perforce non-anonymous.

Or else they filed a completely irrelevant and misleading patent application that described a process they are not using as the process they are using.

Not cool, whichever is the case.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:33 AM on July 29, 2009


Foreigners? They should use prisoners.

Because the only thing better than having your information in the hands of a disinterested third party is having it in the hands of a VERY interested third party...

Heh.
posted by Pragmatica at 10:33 AM on July 29, 2009


Additionally, when I worked as a corporate concierge, we had one client who basically wanted us to perform this kind of voicemail transcription service.

I have done this in my days as a transcription monkey.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:34 AM on July 29, 2009


I've used Jott (back when it was free), and although they are purposely vague about how their system works, they also use human transcribers for at least part of their process. The thought that most or all of my messages were getting transcribed by somebody in India was creepy enough that I never really used it.

it sounds like Spinvox is doing just what they promise. of course humans have to listen to the messages sometimes for both QA and R&D. And not only are Spinvox up front about that, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who is paying a third party to convert media for them believes that their privacy rights extend to the point where that third party is expected to avert their eyes and cover their ears

In my opinion most of these companies are being at the very least deceptive when they present these kinds of systems as being AI-based. They never give any hard numbers about what percentage of messages get transcribed by humans, and my guess is because that number would be extraordinarily high. Commercial AI around speech recognition is still pretty terrible, and yet these services come back with relatively error-free transcriptions, so something must be going on. With Jott I was able to get messages transcribed over a crappy cell phone connection with a lot of background noise, even though AI-based transcription tools have a hard time understanding me through a high quality microphone after hours of training. When these types of companies give hand-waving explanations about how their awesome AI speech recognition systems do most of the work, it seems like they are just trying to hide the fact that what you're really paying for is to have some random guy in a third world country type out your voicemails for you.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:34 AM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, this makes me a little squicky about google's voicemail transcription...

Google actually uses a fully-automated system, with the downside being that it makes tons of mistakes compared to services that use humans.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:44 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


sidhedevil: it's certainly possible that something fishy is going on here, but i find the idea that a company has a patent on a related process that does not play a significant role in their primary service entirely believable.

and as for anonymity, i think that as long as the people who are hearing/seeing your messages do not also see identifying information such as name/address/phone number then Spinvox has done their part. I think that if you use a service like this, then it is your own responsibility to keep information you don't want Spinvox employees seeing (including such identifying information, if you are so inclined) out of your voice messages.

if the "help i'm trapped in a fortune cookie factory" story turns out to be true then, of course, this is a much more interesting story. but as it is, it's just a word-of-mouth aside in one article. frankly, it seems to me more believable that someone read one of the earlier articles and thought that sending that text message to one of their friends who uses the service would be pretty hilarious.
posted by 256 at 10:49 AM on July 29, 2009


I still can't wrap my mind around the concept that there are people in this world who actually consider themselves so busy that they are perfectly okay with giving up personal privacy if it means not having to check their own goddamn messages when the little red light goes blinky-blinky.

Well, why not? The vast majority of personal messages are completely uninteresting to everyone but the sender and the receiver - and often even to them.
posted by me & my monkey at 10:50 AM on July 29, 2009


Of course if they wern't using human operators, you could really prank spinvox users by calling them and leaving them voice messages saying stuff like "Help, I'm trapped in a warehouse in Pakistan and being forced to transcribe these messages, they aren't paying us but they are holding my wife until I transcribe 10,000. Please help! Also your wife says to pick up the dry cleaning."
posted by delmoi at 10:50 AM on July 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


Who the heck leaves proprietary or illegal information in a voice mail to begin with?
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:56 AM on July 29, 2009


I still can't wrap my mind around the concept that there are people in this world who actually consider themselves so busy that they are perfectly okay with giving up personal privacy if it means not having to check their own goddamn messages when the little red light goes blinky-blinky.

Well, you could leave in your greeting "Remember, these messages are transcribed by third parties. To leave a personal message call 777-1234-567" For someone who gets a lot of boring, business related voicemails, it would be pretty worthwhile.
posted by delmoi at 10:56 AM on July 29, 2009


I still can't wrap my mind around the concept that there are people in this world who actually consider themselves so busy that they are perfectly okay with giving up personal privacy if it means not having to check their own goddamn messages when the little red light goes blinky-blinky.

I'll have my girl contact your girl.
posted by dhartung at 11:01 AM on July 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Well, just because we patented the process doesn't mean we'd use it."

Yes, yes. That reasoning makes perfect sense.

It is routine to patent processes that don't end up used. A key rule in patenting is to get your patents filed as soon as possible. This means that, in the course of creating an overall technology, many inventions for which patents are filed end up being discarded or replaced by better inventions. The unused invention patents are usually either withdrawn if not still germane or prosecuted for their defensive value.
posted by bz at 11:01 AM on July 29, 2009


I still can't wrap my mind around the concept that there are people in this world who actually consider themselves so busy that they are perfectly okay with giving up personal privacy if it means not having to check their own goddamn messages when the little red light goes blinky-blinky.

It isn't always a matter of them believing themselves to be that busy. Sometimes it's a matter of them actually being that helpless.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:01 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah those of us who use GoogleVoice have nothing to worry about re: slave transcribers. Most of the transcriptions I get go something like "Hay Revenge, this is clock. Mice dad today! Whiner vista the fork? Chalk too you beater."

Also, the "OMG WERE HOSTAGES IN THE CALL CENTER PLZ HELP" is so unreal and terrifying that if it were the plot of a summer action flick, it would be panned as being far too ridiculous even for fiction. That's the world we live in now.
posted by Avenger at 11:04 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


delmoi: Of course if they wern't using human operators, you could really prank spinvox users by calling them and leaving them voice messages saying stuff like "Help, I'm trapped in a warehouse in Pakistan and being forced to transcribe these messages, they aren't paying us but they are holding my wife until I transcribe 10,000. Please help! Also your wife says to pick up the dry cleaning."

Even if they are using human operators, what's to stop you from doing that anyhow?
posted by vernondalhart at 11:06 AM on July 29, 2009


Also, do poor Pakistanis usually have good enough English for this? Or were they well enough off to learn it fluently but have gotten caught it a strange transcription shop? I always thought the call center jobs in South Asia were white collar and unlikely to face those kind of threats and hardships.
posted by FuManchu at 11:08 AM on July 29, 2009


Both patent applications were lodged in the United States [...]The first, which was filed originally in 2004, describes a "method of providing voicemails to a wireless information device" .
It says an operator "intelligently transcribes the actual message from the original voice message", and concludes that "because human operators are used instead of machine transcription, voicemails are converted accurately, intelligently, appropriately and succinctly into text messages."


You can get a patent for suggesting that someone could listen to your voicemail and write it down?
posted by outlier at 11:11 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sometimes it's a matter of them actually being that helpless.

Oh, yes, that one becomes painfully obvious a week or two in. (Ever called a fast food restaurant to place an order for someone who's already waiting in line?)


I'll have my girl contact your girl.

At least in the case of a personal assistant, one hopefully has some degree of familiarity, even if it's a name-and-facial-recognition-only sort of thing. Either you've directly hired the assistant or they work for your company, so there's a bit of trust that goes with that position. I realize the point I failed to make was that it was the "total strangers listening to your stuff" part that sounded more foolhardy than anything.

on the other hand, if you don't know them and they don't know you...
posted by Spatch at 11:26 AM on July 29, 2009


For those that aren't aware, Spinvox offers a service directly to cellphone carriers that they can then market as their own "visual voicemail" product for a monthly fee.

I have my Blackberry on Telus Mobility and use the visual voicemail because its easier, faster and less expensive for me to read my messages than call in to listen to them. The voicemail arrive in an email with a basic transcription (which is usually good enough - or at least close enough - that I don't have to listen to the message) as well as a compressed .wav of the message itself. My Blackberry automatically highlites the phone number so I can call it with one menu selection.

I get 10-20 messages a day, and most of them are just a quick confirmation of something that has been prediscussed. Most people go on and on and on when leaving a voicemail.

This service honestly makes my day better - but I know realise I should add a disclaimer to my message that it isn't necessarily a private mailbox.
posted by jeffmik at 11:28 AM on July 29, 2009


"Strenuously denied"...Ha! Reminds me of a movie quote...

"I strenuously object?" Is that how it works? Hm? "Objection." "Overruled." "Oh, no, no, no. No, I STRENUOUSLY object." "Oh. Well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider."
posted by 3FLryan at 11:50 AM on July 29, 2009


Who the heck leaves proprietary or illegal information in a voice mail to begin with?

I can't speak to "illegal", but from my own experience as a transcription monkey, you'd be surprised how much proprietary information people left on the voicemails I transcribed.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:13 PM on July 29, 2009


I use the message transcription from Google, which I think is all-automated, and also from Vonage, which I believe is all human-transcribed. The Vonage one MUST be humans, because it is so accurate and so much better than the Google one. It's better than phone messages I get from my own staff and coworkers.

And I love it. If I'm having a hard day, seeing six red blinking messages and having to "retrieve" and listen to them makes my blood pressure rise two full bars, but when that's just six more e-mails that I can read in the elevator or while walking down the street along with all the rest, it's less overwhelming somehow.

It also rocks having all your old messages, forever, archived and searchable when you need to refer to one six weeks later. Never scrambling to write down a phone number or tracking number or reference code that someone leaves is also very nice.

So, yeah, these services are sweet. I don't know if the Vonage one is using overseas slaves or not, but damn they do a good job. To find out, I suppose someone could call and ask. "Hey this phone call is for you, the transcriber. What country are you in? How much are you paid? Please answer in your transcription. Thanks."
posted by rokusan at 12:21 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I realize the point I failed to make was that it was the "total strangers listening to your stuff" part that sounded more foolhardy than anything.

Everyone from phone company employees to the NSA is already using this technology on your voicemail, I assume.

And we're talking about "private" information that in most cases is secured with a single 4-digit number, after all. Not exactly strong protection.

I've never thought of voicemail as even remotely secure to begin with. Maybe that's why these services don't worry me much.
posted by rokusan at 12:24 PM on July 29, 2009


...I suppose someone could call and ask. "Hey this phone call is for you, the transcriber. What country are you in? How much are you paid? Please answer in your transcription. Thanks."

To everyone who has voicemail transcription: please do this, and post results.

Thank you.
posted by aramaic at 12:33 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


bz: "It is routine to patent processes that don't end up used. A key rule in patenting is to get your patents filed as soon as possible. "

Sure, and defensive patenting is understandable. What gets me is that is so well matches the circumstances in the allegation that it sort of beggars belief to try denying it, e.g. "help help, I'm trapped in a transcription warehouse in pakistan please help" is pretty hard to chalk up to machine error.

Also, these types of things were pretty commonplace in mechanical turk for the half-hour or so I used it. Transcribing seemed to pay a premium, and I heard a lot of surprisingly sensitive things for the two or three items I tried. Then I realized I was making about two dollars an hours, and that was the end of MT for me.
posted by boo_radley at 12:36 PM on July 29, 2009


I just need to back up and reiterate what outlier said above: you can get a patent for the idea of having people transcribe voice-mail!? Our whole IP system is fucked up.
posted by lucasks at 12:46 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


The abstract is really general and overarching but more than "the idea of having people transcribe voice-mail to an abbreviated or succinct form and send it as an SMS" is being claimed although none of it seems to me to be likely to survive either a prior art or non-obviousness challenge.

For example, amongst other, somewhat mundane, claims is one directed to a method where a human transcriber, or "operator," can re-route a message to a different transcriber "[who] is more suited to transcribing the voice message because of linguistic, dialect, or cultural reasons." Most of the rest of the claims are related to how an audio transcription file is labeled with an identity and the like.

It's not a patent I'd want to hang my IP hat upon.
posted by bz at 1:24 PM on July 29, 2009


> You can get a patent for suggesting that someone could listen to your voicemail and write it down?

You can get a patent for a Method of Exercising a Cat.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:36 PM on July 29, 2009


1) “SpinVox uses Humans to convert voicemails into text messages.”

No. SpinVox uses Humans to step in when the automated parts of our service need help.
^

Back in the early 90's I worked at a law firm that used the then fairly primitive OCR scanners and software. Pages would be scanned and then one of the WP staff members would QC the scan, correcting the inevitable mistakes. The net result was that the scanners coupled with the software acted as sort of a half-assed transcriptionist. The low confidence in the result was such that the process was really used only to exploit the difference in humans between reading speed and typing speed. The OCR scanner was employed mainly to shoulder the burden of typing, with humans responsible for an accurate transcript.

Seeing the amusingly spotty results of the Google speech recognition tests on the site linked by burnmp3s above (and having confidence that Google is technologically competent) coupled with the quote cited above by outlier makes me believe that SpinVox uses humans to review every single computer transcription of the voicemail messages to identify and correct "...where the automated parts of our service need help."
posted by vapidave at 1:36 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


My wife worked in the medical transcription field in the US, and let me tell you--it's quite common to outsource this overseas, privacy be damned. Yes, there's an attempt to anonymize the information with ID numbers and the sort, but there's still reports that would still have identifying information (names, SSNs, etc.) in the recording vice in the metadata.

Some hospitals (US Military for example) would insist on doing transcription domestically (and maybe Canada), but plenty of others would just chase the carrot of reduced costs. It's a really cutthroat, low-margin industry.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 1:56 PM on July 29, 2009


And we're talking about "private" information that in most cases is secured with a single 4-digit number, after all. Not exactly strong protection.

posted by rokusan


And it seems that most people don't even have a password. Some voicemail systems can be fully compromised by simply calling the phone number while spoofing the same number.
posted by jeffmik at 2:21 PM on July 29, 2009


“We are employees of Spinvox. Since voicemail to text message service has started by Spinvox we are converting your messages here in Pakistan. You can confirm please we are in real trouble. Please for God sake.”

In my opinion most of these companies are being at the very least deceptive when they present these kinds of systems as being AI-based.

Vinge's cookie monster (via) has an interesting subversion of this.
posted by Tobu at 2:39 PM on July 29, 2009


luccasks I just need to back up and reiterate what outlier said above: you can get a patent for the idea of having people transcribe voice-mail!? Our whole IP system is fucked up.

Nope, you can apply for a patent on having people transcribing voicemail. Actually, you can even ask for a patent on drinking water, if you want. Actually getting the patent is an entirely different matter.

Remember folks: published patent application != granted patent. And while we are at it, the abstract has no legal significance, the scope of protection is determined by the clai;s
posted by Skeptic at 4:10 PM on July 29, 2009


Nope, you can apply for a patent on having people transcribing voicemail. Actually, you can even ask for a patent on drinking water, if you want. Actually getting the patent is an entirely different matter.

Lots of crazy patents get applied for, and lots of crazy patents are granted as well. I think the Spinvox patent was granted. The thing is, it's only in a court room where a patent is really tested. Which is an absurd standard because it makes a patent a basically deterministic thing. On the other hand, so few patents are ever enforced, let alone challenged, the cost of doing a careful pre screening probably isn't worth it.
posted by delmoi at 5:54 PM on July 29, 2009


If I'm having a hard day, seeing six red blinking messages and having to "retrieve" and listen to them makes my blood pressure rise two full bars, but when that's just six more e-mails that I can read in the elevator or while walking down the street along with all the rest, it's less overwhelming somehow.

Dude, you desperately need to re-evaluate your work/private life balance. Six voicemail messages should not stress you so much that you're in danger of heart attack.

Work to live, not live to work.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:18 PM on July 29, 2009


I get my voicemail transcribed, and sent via email. (My POP3 connected when I get my from my server is encrypted, but mail to it of course isn't.)

I've assumed the transcription is by humans, in India or Pakistan; I've warned friends and family that messaes are transcribed and to not leave anything too personal.

But transcription is great for most messages, and especially for unsolicited job offers that ramble on or are otherwise hard to listen to.
posted by orthogonality at 8:24 PM on July 29, 2009


In the 1970s and 1980s, my father - a contractor, used a secretarial service, Girl Friday, that would take his messages, write them down and then later he would call them to get the message. Since he was one of the first adopters of a car phone (it was HUGE, with buttons and a rotary dial) and then of a cell phone (also HUGE), he would call in to Girl Friday from the road or restaurant, etc.

How is this any different from what SpinVox is supposedly offering? Email is just as secure or insecure as a wireless phone call, if you doubt that talk to your local geek who has all the radio equipment to entertain themselves by listening to folks' mobile/cell phone calls and police channels (illegal as it maybe).

Is this scandal about the fact that Spinvox uses human translation as needed, which is in all of there documentation and when you sign up, as I did in May of 2008, you know about it? Or is this scandal about the fact that the call center workers are not in the UK/Marlow in the same building as the Spinvox HQ?

As a fairly happy, or mostly amused by my text messages, user of SpinVox, I am happy that most of the message that come from SpinVox are reasonably accurate . Most of my messages are inane state of life updates from my Mom and friends. So far not a single friend or family member has been silly enough to release their social security number or credit card while leaving a voice message on my cell phone of which is announced before they leave that the said message to be recorded by SpinVox. Most of my message leavers like having a nice British voice announce that SpinVox will be relaying the message to me via text or email.

All that said, given that almost any wireless transmission can be hacked by a set up from Radio Shack, I would certainly hope that folks calling me would not leave a highly private or confidential message on my one and only phone, a mobile phone, be the message taken by AT&T's message center or by SpinVox or by Google Voice.

If this scandal is about a supposed abuse of call center workers, then it should be investigated and SpinVox should make sure that their contractors are paying their workers and treating them well.
posted by msjen at 10:15 PM on July 29, 2009


Dude, you desperately need to re-evaluate your work/private life balance.

Undeniably.
posted by rokusan at 10:33 PM on July 29, 2009


This article in the Register provides a much better insight in Spinvox's trouble. And, delmoi, that patent hasn't been granted yet. According to the article, out of 70 patent applications over the whole world, Spinvox has only received one grant by a major patent office (USPTO) and it isn't that one. As somebody who has dealt daily with patent examination for the last twelve years, I can assure you that getting a patent granted these days is far from easy. Over the last four-five years patent offices have become increasingly picky.
posted by Skeptic at 12:22 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


... and in re Bilski is making it harder yet.
posted by bz at 8:49 AM on July 30, 2009


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