Microsoft Staff Listen To Some Translated Skype Calls – Report

Another day, another privacy scare, as Microsoft contractors sometimes listen to translated Skype calls

Microsoft and its Skype VoIP application has been dragged into the privacy row surrounding the use of tech giant’s digital personal assistants, when they listen and record user interactions.

A Microsoft contractor revealed to Motherboard that Microsoft workers occasionally listen to real Skype conversations that have been processed by its translation software, launched back in 2015.

The idea is that some of these conversations are ‘reviewed’ to check the quality of translations.

Skype translations

Motherboard said that it has proof, after it obtained “a cache of internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings” from an anonymous Microsoft contractor.

Motherboard said it had granted the source anonymity to speak more candidly about internal Microsoft practices, because the person is under a non-disclosure agreement with the company.

WThe 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 reportedly told the website.

So what data was leaked by the contractor? Well it seems that 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.”

It said that other files show that Microsoft contractors are also listening to voice commands that users speak to Cortana, the company’s voice assistant.

The snippets of audio are said to be short, lasting between five and ten seconds. The source said other passages can be longer, however.

What makes this discovery alarming is that despite Microsoft admitting in its privacy policy that it has users’ permission to collect and process their data. But nowhere does it states that humans may listen in to calls.

“Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement.

“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,” it added. “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,” it said. “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.”

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 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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