Privacy Is Lost in Translation

October 30, 2017

Online translation tools are a wonder!  Instead of having to rely on limited dictionaries and grammars, online translation tools deliver real-time, nearly accurate translations of documents and other text.  It is usually good to double check the translation because sometimes the tools do make mistakes.  Translation tools, however, can make mistakes that lose privacy in translation.  Quartz tells an alarming story in, “If You Value Your Privacy, Be Careful With Online Translation Tools.”

Norwegian state oil company Statoil used Translate.com to translate sensitive company documents.  One would think that would not be a problem, except Translate.com stored the data in the cloud.  The sensitive documents included dismissal letters, contracts, workforce reduction plans, and more.  News traveled fast in Norway, resulting in the Oslo Stock Exchange blocking employees’ access to Translate.com and Google Translate.

It was dubbed a massive privacy breach as private documents from other organizations and individuals were discovered.  Translate.com views the incident differently:

Translate.com sees things a little differently, however, saying it was straight with users about the fact that it was crowdsourcing human translations to improve on machine work. In a Sept. 6 blog post responding to the news reports, the company explained that in the past, they were using human volunteer translators to improve their algorithm, and during that time, had made documents submitted for translation public so that any human volunteers could easily access them. ‘As a precaution, there was a clear note on our homepage stating: ‘All translations will be sent to our community to improve accuracy.’

Translate.com also offered to remove any documents upon request, but sensitive documents were still available when the Quartz article was written.  Vice president of Sales for Translate.com Maria Burud pointed out that they offer a paid translation software intended for businesses to maintain their privacy.  Burud notes that that anything translate using a free web tool is bound to have privacy issues, but that there is a disclaimer on her company’s Web site.  It is up to the user to de-identify the information or watch what they post in a translation box.

In other words, watch what you translate and post online.  It will come back to haunt you.

Whitney Grace, October 30, 2017

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