You know those old THX ads that would end their dramatic crescendo with the line “The audience is listening”? (It’s on YouTube, young’uns.) Well, when you have what you think is a private conversation with Alexa, or the Google Assistant, or Siri, numerous reports have emerged in recent weeks revealing that other humans might be listening too (although Apple has since revised its policy).
Now it turns out that Microsoft is probably listening to some of your Skype calls if you’re using a tool called Translator. Skype launched the clever feature in 2015, offering near-real-time audio translations during phone and video calls. But a new report from Motherboard reveals that Microsoft sends some Skype recordings to its contractors to review how the translation services worked, according to a cache of “internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings” obtained by the site’s reporters.
Audio conversations include “people talking intimately to loved ones, some chatting about personal issues such as their weight loss, and others seemingly discussing relationship problems.”
While Skype’s website says that it may “analyze audio of phone calls that a user wants to translate in order to improve the chat platform’s services,” it never spells out that the people analyzing the calls are humans as opposed to AI, Motherboard points out. The news is not so much surprising as unsettling. It makes sense that Microsoft wants to double-check the work of the complex machinations that go into Skype-translation services. Skype has a privacy dashboard where users can view and delete stored audio data connected to their Microsoft account, and Skype apparently has visual and/or audio signals that let users know when it’s busy collecting audio. (Look for mysterious lights or a mic that says it is activated.)
That said, just by admitting “it makes sense” seems to imply that we’re becoming inured to our tech overlords listening in to what we assumed were private conversations in the interest of making them work better. The machines: 1; Privacy: 0.
Reached for comment, a Microsoft spokesperson sent this statement, which basically reiterates what their website says:
“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.”