Microsoft contractors working on Skype translation service are listening in on some conversations, new report shows

Following news about Apple and Google using human transcribers to analyse conversations being done with Siri and Google Assistant, it appears that humans are also listening to calls being done on Microsoft’s Skype service. A new report published on Vice’s Motherboard website today reveals that Microsoft contractors are listening to Skype conversations where the Skype Translator service is being used.

In a Skype Translator Privacy FAQ, the company explains that “To help the translation and speech recognition technology learn and grow, sentences and automatic transcripts are analyzed and any corrections are entered into our system, to build more performant services.” The fact that this work in done partly by humans is never mentioned explicitly, and Motherboard also reports that these Microsoft contractors also have access to some voice commands issued to Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant.

The Skype audio obtained by Motherboard includes conversations from people talking intimately to loved ones; some chatting about personal issues such as their weight loss, and others seemingly discussing relationship problems. Other files obtained by Motherboard show that Microsoft contractors are also listening to voice commands that users speak to Cortana, the company’s voice assistant.

A Microsoft contractor also told Motherboard that some of the Cortana voice commands they listened to included personal addresses, as well as queries about adult content. “Some stuff I’ve heard could clearly be described as phone sex. I’ve heard people entering full addresses in Cortana commands, or asking Cortana to provide search returns on pornography queries. 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 contractor said to Motherboard.

Microsoft’s Skype Translator FAQ does mention that “conversations that are used for product improvement are indexed with alphanumeric identifiers that do not identify participants to the conversation,” but the company should really more transparent about how it analyzes voice data. In an emailed statement sent to Motherboard, a Microsoft spokesperson acknowledged that third-party vendors and their employees have access to voice data, adding that all contractors are under strict non-disclosure agreements.

“Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services. 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.”

“We also put in place several procedures designed to prioritize users’ privacy before sharing this data with our vendors, including de-identifying data, requiring non-disclosure agreements with vendors and their employees, and requiring that vendors meet the high privacy standards set out in European law. We continue to review the way we handle voice data to ensure we make options as clear as possible to customers and provide strong privacy protections,” the statement added.

Even if contractors have to sign NDAs before accessing audio captured by Skype Translator and Cortana, Motherboard reports that many of these employees are actually working from home, accessing all audio data through a secure online portal. “The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” said a Microsoft contractor who provided audio files to Motherboard.

Are you concerned about humans listening to Skype calls and Cortana voice commands, and do you think Microsoft should follow Google and Apple which recently announced that they would stop using human transcribers? Sound off in the comments below.

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