Microsoft has also been a member of the eavesdropping gang – report

Microsoft contractors have been listening to Skype and Cortana conversations without the full knowledge and consent of the apps’ users, claims a report.

We were almost immediately proved wrong when we said Microsoft, in comparison with Apple, Google, and Amazon, “fortunately has not suffered high profile embarrassment” by its voice assistant Cortana. Motherboard, part of the media outlet Vice, reported that Microsoft contractors, some of them working from home, have been listening to some Skype calls using the app’s instant translation feature, as well as users’ interactions with the Cortana.

Motherboard has acquired audio clips, screenshots as well as internal documents to show that Microsoft, just as its peers, have been employing humans to constantly improve the software algorithm and the quality and accuracy of the translations and responses. Also similar to the other leading tech companies that run voice assistants, Microsoft is ambiguous in its consumer communication, lax in its policy implementation, and does not give the users a way to opt out.

“The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” the Microsoft contractor turned whistle-blower, who supplied the evidence and decided to remain anonymous, told Motherboard.

“Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services,” Microsoft said a statement sent to Motherboard. “We strive to be transparent about our collection and use of voice data to ensure customers can make informed choices about when and how their voice data is used. Microsoft gets customers’ permission before collecting and using their voice data.”

“Skype Translator Privacy FAQ” states that “Voice conversations are only recorded when translation features are selected by a user.” It then goes on to guide users how to turn off the translation feature. There is no possibility for a customer to use the translation service without having the conversation recorded. Neither does the official document say the recorded conversations may be listened to by another human.

Due to the “gig economy” nature of the job, some contractors work from home when undertaking the tasks to correct translations or improve Cortana’s response quality. This is also made obvious by Microsoft contractors’ job listings. However, the content they deal with can be sensitive, from conversations between people in an intimate relationship, to health status and home addresses, as well as query records on Cortana. “While I don’t know exactly what one could do with this information, it seems odd to me that it isn’t being handled in a more controlled environment,” the whistle-blower contractor told Motherboard.

The report does not specify where the eavesdropping they uncovered took place, but the line in the Microsoft statement that “We … require that vendors meet the high privacy standards set out in European law” can’t help but raise some suspicion that the practice could run afoul of GDPR, the European Union’s privacy protection regulation.

At the time of writing, Microsoft has not announced a suspension the practice.

Watershed moment: should mobile operators be worried we talk less?

A new report from Ofcom claims users in the UK spoke 2.5 billion minutes less on their mobile phones, down by 1.7% in 2017, the first such decline in history.

This followed the trend total talking time by the UK population has been declining over several years, primarily mainly driven by the sharp drop in minutes spent on fixed line phones. The combined talking time also suffered the sharpest drop in years, at more than 6%. See the chart from Ofcom’s The Communications Market 2018 report (p.17) below.Ofcom report call minutes decline

In some ways mobile operators should be concerned. After OTT messaging services (WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, etc.) destroyed the text message cash cow, it looks they are also losing another revenue stream, the voice call.

However it does not necessarily mean we speak less. Some simply move the calls into other apps, especially when we need to speak to people overseas, more than one people at the same time, or when we like to combine video with audio. Group video call features from WhatsApp or Skype and others come handy.

Operators’ response is not too dissimilar to the one when they tried to fend off the OTT messaging services. After throwing in unlimited number of text messages to typical packages, they now often throw in unlimited minutes. However this does not look to have reverted the trend of fewer minutes spent on voice calls, just like the unlimited text message offers have not reverted the decline in SMS and MMS (p.20).

Ofcom report SMS decline

The experience of messaging apps may be superior when handling rich features, but it needs internet connection, and it consumes data, which is exactly what operators are working hard to monetise. Some choose to offer bigger data buckets at a higher price, while others bundled with value-added services, for example video streaming. The result shows people do pick up higher packages. The total mobile retail revenues dropped by 1.3% from 2016, but revenues from mobile packages grew by nearly 3%, while revenues from out-of-bundle data near held. The biggest drop occurred in out-of-bundle voice. It seems for most people the bundled voice was already more than enough.

Ofcom report revenue types