Investigation Finds Skype Is Listening To Some User Phone Calls

Microsoft contractors are reviewing voice recordings created by Skype's automated translation feature, according to an investigation by Motherboard. The publication obtained internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings from a contractor whose task it was to listen to recordings and transcribe them in order to improve the Skype translation service. Some of the recordings were also from Skype's voice assistant, Cortana, and many of the contractors also worked from home.

"The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data," the contractor said to Motherboard.

The audio given to Motherboard has extremely personal recordings, including conversations about weight loss, intimate conversations with loved ones, and relationship problems. The actual audio recordings are short, around five to 10 seconds, but the contractor says there are longer ones as well.

"Some stuff I've heard could clearly be described as phone sex," the contractor told Motherboard. "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."

Motherboard notes that the Skype site does say that phone call audio may be analyzed, but doesn't specify that it may be done by humans. Their site states:

"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."

In a statement, Skype said that they've also taken further steps to protect user privacy.

"Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services," a Skype spokesperson said in a statement 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.

"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," the spokesperson continued. "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."

Microsoft isn't the only company whose shady practices of letting users assume that computers are analyzing their recordings when humans are also listening. Apple, Google, and Amazon were recently exposed for similar practices to the ones reported here. Apple and Google suspended those practices once they were revealed, while Amazon now more explicitly gives users the options to opt out of human transcription.

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