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Microsoft Contractors Have Listened to Xbox Recordings For Years (Update)

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Update 8/22/2019 2:17 p.m. ET A Microsoft spokesperson issued a followup statement to our initial inquiry indicating that the company has stopped the practice of summarily listening to Xbox recordings for product improvement purposes. Xbox continues to record user voice activity, per the Xbox terms of service, but only listens to the audio in instances where a user reports audio that violates their terms of service and the company needs to investigate. 

“We stopped reviewing any voice content taken through Xbox for product improvement purposes a number of months ago, as we no longer felt it was necessary, and we have no plans to re-start those reviews. We occasionally review a low volume of voice recordings sent from one Xbox user to another when there are reports that a recording violated our terms of service and we need to investigate. This is done to keep the Xbox community safe and is clearly stated in our Xbox terms of service,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a written statement to Tom's Hardware. 

The original story continues below. 

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Microsoft contractors have been recording and listening to pieces of audio from Xbox users as far back as 2014, according to Vice News. The audio was recorded as part of an effort by Microsoft to improve the voice command features on the Xbox. Contractors began to record and listen to users during the launch of the Microsoft Kinect system in 2014 and continued through the company’s switch to the Cortana virtual assistant, which was released in 2016. 

The audio recordings were supposed to be triggered during specific vocal commands users would give the Xbox, such as "Hey Cortana." However, there were times when recordings were triggered accidentally and contractors were left listening to the private conversations of users, many of whom were underage.

"Most of the Xbox related stuff I can recall doing was obviously unintentional activations with people telling Cortana 'No' as they were obviously in the middle of a game and doing normal game chat," a current contractor granted anonymity by Vice News told the publication. 

The contractors listened to the snippets of audio in an attempt to improve the reliability of the algorithms in voice activated systems. 

“We’ve long been clear that we collect voice data to improve voice-enabled services and that this data is sometimes reviewed by vendors," a Microsoft spokesperson told Motherboard in a written statement. Microsoft also gave Tom’s Hardware the same statement. 

"We’ve recently updated our privacy statement to add greater clarity that people sometimes review this data as part of the product improvement process," the company added. "We always get customer permission before collecting voice data, we take steps to de-identify voice snippets being reviewed to protect people’s privacy, and we require that handling of this data be held to the highest privacy standards in the law. At the same time, we’re actively working on additional steps we can take to give customers more transparency and more control over how their data is used to improve products," the spokesperson said. 

Microsoft joins a list of tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Facebook who have recently faced criticism for their use of human contractors in an effort to  improve virtual assistants. Microsoft recently updated their privacy policy to explicitly indicate that humans might listen to recordings, while Facebook pledged to stop using contractors all together. 

Last month, Microsoft announced that it plans to drop Cortana from the Xbox entirely this fall, though the system will still be able to be controlled by the virtual assistant through the Cortana Android and iOS apps.

  • xelliz
    A lot of my friends gave me crap about not wanting an Xbox as long as Kinect was required. They chastised me for being paranoid about this very thing. Well...look at all the companies that having been listening to us.
    Reply
  • Dark Lord of Tech
    Where there's a speaker and recording capabilities , there's somebody listening.
    Reply
  • NightHawkRMX
    Doesn't this breach the heck out of COPPA? (I mostly know COPPA from LGR's tech tale on Bonzi Buddy)

    Or do people have to say that they are a certain age or older to use the voice feature, thus not capturing data from underage individuals?
    Reply