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.