Updated, 8/9/19, 11:10am PT: Microsoft responded to our request for comment with the same statement it sent to Motherboard earlier this week. The company declined to answer further questions about not explicitly informing users their voice recordings might be shared with outside contractors, how it removes personally identifiable information from these recordings, or if it's planning to make any changes to these processes following the revelations from Motherboard's report. We'll continue to monitor the situation to see if Microsoft releases additional information or regulators expand their inquiries into how tech companies handle voice recordings to include Skype Translate and Cortana.
Original article, 8/7/19, 8:32am PT:
Microsoft became the latest tech company to face criticism for having people listen to ostensibly private conversations today, with Motherboard reporting that contractors help train AI using snippets of audio recorded via the Translate feature in Skype, as well as the Cortana voice assistant.
The report was based on information provided by an anonymous Microsoft contractor, who told Motherboard that "some stuff I've heard could clearly be described as phone sex." He also said workers have "heard people entering full addresses in Cortana commands, or asking Cortana to provide search returns on pornography queries." Motherboard also received internal documents, screenshots and audio recordings backing up these claims.
Microsoft is vague about the fact that contractors might listen to audio recordings in its marketing, support documents and privacy policies. The company discloses that it can "analyze" some audio to improve its AI but doesn't explicitly state what that analysis involves. Some people might assume that other AI is being used to double-check existing tools and may not have even considered the possibility of another person listening in.
We reached out to Microsoft for comment in response to Motherboard's report and will update if the company responds. In the meantime, here's the statement it sent Motherboard, which makes it seem like the company doesn't plan to change its handling of audio recordings any time soon:
"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."
This practice isn't--or at least wasn't--limited to Microsoft. Bloomberg reported on Amazon contractors listening to recordings from Alexa in April, VRT NWS reported on similar practices at Google in July and The Guardian followed up a few weeks later, reporting that Apple contractors listened to Siri recordings. Many of the AI-powered services that have become increasingly popular over the last few years were backed up by human workers.
The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information announced on August 1 that it was investigating Google's use of these contractors to improve the AI in Google Assistant. The regulator told Google not to use real-world recordings in this way for at least three months. It mentioned Amazon and Apple in the announcement, too, which meant Google may not be the only company at risk of legal scrutiny.
Amazon and Apple quickly responded to backlash caused by these revelations. Amazon said on August 2 that it would give Alexa users the option to keep recorded audio snippets private, and that same day, Apple said it was temporarily suspending its program while it conducted a thorough review. The default for both services is still potentially invasive, but at least their users will have the option to keep their audio recordings private.