Microsoft says humans are no longer listening to Xbox One voice recordings

Amelia Heathman
Humphrey Muleba / Unsplash

Microsoft has joined Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook as the latest tech company to admit that human contractors were listening to conversations between customers and their smart devices.

According to a report by Motherboard, contractors have been listening to voice recordings capture by the Xbox One console. This practice has been ongoing since 2013, when the console could be controlled with voice commands via the Kinect camera accessory, and more recently since Microsoft’s Cortana AI assistant was added to the Xbox One.

If you ever accessed your Xbox’s functions by saying “Xbox” or “Hey Cortana”, there's a chance the conversation was listened to, but contractors said recordings were sometimes captured by accident.

After Motherboard published the story, Microsoft has said it has stopped the practice. In a statement to the publication, Microsoft said: “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.

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“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.”

Microsoft also came under fire for listening in to some Skype calls made using the app’s translation feature.

The moral of the story appears to be that if you have used any type of voice assistant in the past few years, there’s a chance a human was listening in to what you were saying on the other end. This raises issues around things like privacy and doesn’t do much to quell fears over surveillance.

AI virtual assistants such as Google Assistant have been recording conversations for humans to transcribe (PA Wire/PA Images)

The post-Cambridge Analytica era of tech has shown us that we should demand more from tech companies and not be blindly led into using products without realising the consequences. In the same vein, tech companies should also be more transparent about how they’re using our data.

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This week, Facebook announced a new privacy tool named “Clear History”. The tool allows people to view the tools Facebook users to track people around the internet, which is why you always get served ads on Instagram and Facebook for products you looked at on other websites.

In addition, the tool allows people to “disconnect” the activity from their account – however, this will not delete any information from Facebook’s servers. It’s a step in the right direction but falls short of anything radical that could make a difference to data on the internet.

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Read more Is Facebook listening to me? Maybe, if you used Messenger’s audio chat