Microsoft Updates Privacy Policy To Admit Listening To Voice Data

Following the discovery that Microsoft contractors sometimes listen to translated Skype calls, Redmond has updated its privacy policy.

The updated policy now admits that the software giant does collect user voice data via its staff and contractors.

The admission comes after a contractor revealed to Motherboard last week that Microsoft workers occasionally listen to real Skype conversations that have been processed by its translation software. The idea is that some of these conversations are ‘reviewed’ to check the quality of translations.

Privacy admission

Internal documents released to the media also revealed that “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 showed that Microsoft contractors are also listening to voice commands that users speak to Cortana, the company’s voice assistant.

This development meant that Microsoft became the latest to be involved in the privacy row surrounding the use of a tech giant’s digital personal assistants, when they listen and record user interactions.

What made this discovery so alarming was that despite Microsoft admitting in its privacy policy that it has users’ permission to collect and process their data – nowhere did it state that humans may actually listen in to calls.

Microsoft admitted that it collected user data when confronted about it last week, but now the firm has updated its privacy policy to let customers know that it had been collecting voice data of its users with the help of employees and contractors, Reuters reported.

A spokesperson for Microsoft reportedly said the company collects voice data to provide voice-enabled services for Skype and Cortana and sometimes uses vendors to assist in improving these services.

“We realized, based on questions raised recently, that we could do a better job specifying that humans sometimes review this content,” the spokesperson told Reuters in an emailed statement.

“We’ve updated our privacy statement and product FAQs to add greater clarity and will continue to examine further opportunities to improve,” the Microsoft spokesperson added.

Privacy scares

There have been a series of privacy scares of tech firms apparently listening into people’s conversations with their personal assistants.

It was reported earlier this year that a global team of people at Amazon reviewed audio clips of people speaking to their Alexa-powered smart speakers, to help improve its functionality.

Jitters were raised again about Amazon again in May when the e-commerce giant filed a patent that would allow Alexa to record everything a person says, before a wake command word is actually issued.

In May Amazon was hit with two lawsuits alleging that its Alexa-powered smart speakers are recording children.

Amazon did not help matters last month when it admitted in a letter to a US senator that it keeps Alexa user voice recordings indefinitely.

Meanwhile earlier this week the Luxembourg data protection watchdog opened discussions with Amazon about how the firm processed Alexa voice recordings made of people.

Google was also dragged into it when it admitted in July that it uses ‘language experts’ around the world to study small ‘snippets’ of user recordings gained from Google Home smart speakers.

It along with Apple (with its Siri assistant) have now suspended reviewing voice recordings from users.

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Tom Jowitt @TJowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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