Microsoft contractors are reportedly listening in on Skype Translator calls

According to a new report from Motherboard, Microsoft contractors are listening in on some Skype calls; specifically, the ones that use the live translation features. As you'd probably expect, it's done in the name of improving the translation service.

Motherboard says that it's received a series of "internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings" to confirm the report. And as one contractor pointed out, the fact that they were able to share the data at all "shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data".

In the Skype Translator Privacy FAQ, it does not say anything about actual humans listening to conversations. Specifically, it says the following in the section about conversations being collected and how they're used:

When you use Skype’s translation features, 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. To help protect your privacy, the conversations that are used for product improvement are indexed with alphanumeric identifiers that do not identify participants to the conversation.

Moreover, contractors are also able to listen to your Cortana commands. One contractor said that they've seen people enter full addresses, and even ask the voice assistant to search for pornography. The same contractor said they've heard Skype conversations that "could clearly be described as phone sex".

While the report doesn't explicitly say so, the FAQ that's linked above does say that all collected data is anonymous. While Microsoft might be able to listen in on your calls, it can't see who is talking. Also, it's worth pointing out again that it's only for Skype Translator, and not all Skype calls.

"Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services," a Microsoft spokesperson told Neowin. "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."

Microsoft also says that users do have to opt into it for both Skype Translator and Cortana; it's likely a message that asks if you want to help improve the service. There should also be indicators for when a speech platform is collecting audio.

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