Microsoft contractors are able to listen to some Skype calls

A new report reveals that Microsoft won’t be left out of the mix when it comes to big tech companies having humans listen in on customers.

Motherboard has the report this week, detailing with screenshots, audio recording, and documents that contractors working with Microsoft have the ability to listen in on some Skype calls. The report reveals that while the customer use the app’s built-in translation feature, the contractors are able to listen to the conversations.

Contractors working for Microsoft are listening to personal conversations of Skype users conducted through the app’s translation service, according to a cache of internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings obtained by Motherboard. Although Skype’s website says that the company may analyze audio of phone calls that a user wants to translate in order to improve the chat platform’s services, it does not say some of this analysis will be done by humans.

It is worth noting, again, that this issue, where humans are able to “analyze” conversations from users, is only taking place when the translation feature is activated. Otherwise, it looks like humans are not able to listen in on any other standard voice or video calls.

However, this is an issue no matter what, as the report reveals that the contractors are able to listen in on intimate conversations between users. What’s more, while Microsoft does say that analysis of Skype calls is possible, it does not specifically state that humans will be handling that task.

The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” a Microsoft contractor who provided the cache of files to Motherboard said. Motherboard granted the source anonymity to speak more candidly about internal Microsoft practices, and because the person is under a non-disclosure agreement with the company.

Some of the audio recordings gained by Motherboard include intimate conversations between loved ones, another customer’s issue with weight loss, and more.

The contractors primarily work from home, and are sent the Skype audio conversations by Microsoft directly. That package includes an approximate translation of the conversation that’s put together by Microsoft’s own AI program for Skype. Once the contractor receives the conversation, it is up to them to choose the most accurate translation or do it themselves. The contractor then sends that conversation back to Microsoft.

As mentioned above, Microsoft does say in its documentation, including FAQs, that it does analyze Skype conversations, when the translation tool is used, in an effort to better improve the service. However, this is not an opt-in or opt-out situation, and, again, Microsoft does not say humans are the ones analyzing the conversations of customers.

Microsoft did provide a statement to Motherboard, though, in light of the report:

A Microsoft spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement, “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,” the statement added.

For its part, Microsoft says the translated conversations that are sent to contractors are missing any identifying information, including device identification numbers, so there’s that.

This is just one more story cropping up like this. It started with Amazon, where it was revealed that thousands of employees were listening in on conversations recorded by the Echo smart speaker. Soon after that, Google was thrown in front of the bus as it was revealed that employees could listen in on private conversations recorded by Google Assistant.

Even Apple wasn’t left out of the mix.

However, Apple was quick to stop the Siri “grading program” across the globe, and will ultimately let customers opt-in or opt-out of the program altogether later this year. Sure enough, both Amazon and Google followed suit in this regard as well. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft handles this.

What do you think of what’s happening here? It makes sense that companies would want to improve their technologies and features and hardware, but should it always be an opt-in or opt-out situation? Ors should consumers just expect this to be happening?