What you need to know

  • Microsoft contractors are listening to portions of some Skype calls according to a new report.
  • The soundbites in question are from calls using Skype's translation service.
  • Some audio includes personal details, including phone sex, and full addresses.

Updated August 15, 2019: Microsoft confirmed that human employees and vendors may listen to Skype calls and Cortana queries. The original story follows.

Microsoft contractors listen to portions of Skype calls according to a new report from Vice. According to the report, snippets of Skype calls that use the Skype translation feature are listened to by humans to improve translations. Vice's tech division, Motherboard, obtained internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings that show examples of what is recorded and listened to by contractors.

Skype's translation feature improves over time thanks to its use of artificial intelligence, but the use of humans is controversial because it is not clearly stated on Microsoft's website that humans will listen to parts of conversations. The FAQ page for Skype Translator says that calls are recorded, but doesn't clearly state that humans will listen to the calls.

When you use Skype's translation features, Skype collects and uses your conversation to help improve Microsoft products and services. 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. To help protect your privacy, the conversations that are used for product improvement are indexed with alphanumeric identifiers that do not identify participants to the conversation.

Microsoft told Motherboard in a statement that Microsoft is transparent about its use of voice data.

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 portions of audio are generally between five and ten seconds, but some can be longer. Audio files obtained by Motherboard include clips of people discussing weight loss, relationship problems, and phone sex. A contractor also reported that a clip contained a Cortana Command in which someone searched for pornography.

Microsoft states that a secure online portal is used for audio data and that identifying information is removed. Microsoft is not the first company to be in the news about humans listening to recordings. ArsTechnica reported that Google and Apple stopped using humans to listen to queries until people opted-in.

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