Earlier this month, Motherboard reported that, like so many other voice assistants and services, Microsoft had also hired contractors to listen to samples of recorded Skype calls and interactions with Cortana. Their reasoning is that some of the audio is saved to help better train the company's artificial intelligence programs. But this wasn't all they were recording.
Now, Motherboard is reporting that contractors were also hired by Microsoft to listen to audio recordings made by Xbox video game consoles, as a way to improve voice recognition. Former contractors tell Motherboard that the recordings should have only recorded users when a specific voice command was given, but the console would record audio by mistake at other times as well.
What's worse is that many of those recordings were of children.
These recordings were apparently first captured and analyzed on audio beginning around 2014 through the Kinect system, a combo camera and microphone device that was an optional add-on for Xbox. Once production on those devices stopped, contractors say the audio was recorded through interactions with Cortana when the voice assistant was added to Xbox consoles in 2016.
Microsoft says it stopped reviewing voice content recorded through Xbox months ago, and they have no plans to start again.
To adjust the privacy settings on your Xbox console, log in to the privacy section of your Microsoft account and look for the Xbox options under the Other Privacy Settings section. Find details on adjusting privacy settings and deleting recordings through other services in the original report below.
Over the course of the year, we've learned many of those spiffy voice assistants built into smart speakers and other devices are listening to more than just commands. And it's not just one assistant, as details have come to light that Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri have been recording and transcribing conversations.
Now you can add Microsoft to the list of companies with devices that listen to your conversations, and it's not just their voice assistant, Cortana; that also includes Skype. Are you really surprised?
They say consumers were made aware of what's been collected, but it seems the company left out one crucial detail. Find out what really has Microsoft in hot water and how you can minimize the eavesdropping.
How Microsoft is listening to you
Motherboard first reported that Microsoft is recording Cortana and Skype conversations and then handing some files over to third-party contractors whose employees assess the audio. The Skype recordings contained conversations about loved ones, personal issues and relationship problems.
Microsoft responded that in Skype's and Cortana's FAQ sections users are told that some of their audio may be saved in order to better train its artificial intelligence (AI) programs. But one thing the FAQs don't tell you is that human contractors are also listening.
Just like Amazon, Google and Apple, humans are both listening and going over written transcripts of your conversations. Google and Apple suspended their human transcription programs in various ways, while Alexa now allows you to disable human review.
Skype translations the real target
No offense to Cortana, but when virtual assistants are discussed Cortana usually doesn't make the cut. In fact, it seems Microsoft is more interested in improving Skype's AI translating capabilities – a system that's already impressive
To improve its machine learning, Microsoft presents human contractors with select Skype audio recordings, as well as some translations to assess. The contractors then choose which translation is more accurate or they write their own and Skype's AI then learns the new information.
The contractor who presented Motherboard with the Skype and Cortana recordings conceded that Microsoft sends them the audio with no identifiable information. In other words, they don't know anything about the person speaking.
Microsoft said the audio is sent to contractors through a secure portal after the company has removed user or ID numbers. Employees of third-party contractors are also required to sign non-disclosure agreements and Microsoft has the right to audit their work for compliance purposes.
Stopping Microsoft from recording you
It's not so easy to stop the practice when it comes to Skype, and there doesn't appear to be a way to opt out of the Translator system from collecting your voice data. You can, however, make changes to Cortana.
To stop Cortana from recording:
- Open the Settings menu in Windows 10 and click on Privacy.
- Check the sidebar on the left side for an option called Speech
- Disable the feature called Online speech recognition.
Keep in mind, you won't be recorded but Cortana also won't respond to any voice commands.
To delete any previous recordings:
- First, access your Microsoft account at account.microsoft.com
- Find the Privacy tab.
- Look for Voice Activity, then View and Clear Voice Activity.
- Hit Clear Activity to delete your stored data.
As for the other voice assistants out there, you can find how to delete recordings from Alexa here. For Google Assistant you can find your recordings at myaccount.google.com and we'll take you through the deletion process.
Various smart devices are also recording you. Turn off the record setting on many devices through this tutorial.
Microsoft makes key change to Windows setup process
You just want to get the whole thing over and done with painlessly, but they won't let you. You have to sit there quietly, trying to get the occasional word in while politely listening to the annoying voice that rattles on and on without even taking so much as a single breath.