Microsoft Contractors Have Listened to Xbox Recordings For Years

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Microsoft contractors have been recording and listening to pieces of audio from Xbox users as far back as 2014, according to Vice News. The audio was recorded as part of an effort by Microsoft to improve the voice command features on the Xbox. Contractors began to record and listen to users during the launch of the Microsoft Kinect system in 2014 and continued through the company’s switch to the Cortana virtual assistant, which was released in 2016. 

The audio recordings were supposed to be triggered during specific vocal commands users would give the Xbox, such as "Hey Cortana." However, there were times when recordings were triggered accidentally and contractors were left listening to the private conversations of users, many of whom were underage.

"Most of the Xbox related stuff I can recall doing was obviously unintentional activations with people telling Cortana 'No' as they were obviously in the middle of a game and doing normal game chat," a current contractor granted anonymity by Vice News told the publication. 

The contractors listened to the snippets of audio in an attempt to improve the reliability of the algorithms in voice activated systems. 

“We’ve long been clear that we collect voice data to improve voice-enabled services and that this data is sometimes reviewed by vendors," a Microsoft spokesperson told Motherboard in a written statement. Microsoft also gave Tom’s Hardware the same statement. 

"We’ve recently updated our privacy statement to add greater clarity that people sometimes review this data as part of the product improvement process," the company added. "We always get customer permission before collecting voice data, we take steps to de-identify voice snippets being reviewed to protect people’s privacy, and we require that handling of this data be held to the highest privacy standards in the law. At the same time, we’re actively working on additional steps we can take to give customers more transparency and more control over how their data is used to improve products," the spokesperson said. 

Microsoft joins a list of tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Facebook who have recently faced criticism for their use of human contractors in an effort to  improve virtual assistants. Microsoft recently updated their privacy policy to explicitly indicate that humans might listen to recordings, while Facebook pledged to stop using contractors all together. 

Last month, Microsoft announced that it plans to drop Cortana from the Xbox entirely this fall, though the system will still be able to be controlled by the virtual assistant through the Cortana Android and iOS apps.