Microsoft contractors listened to audio recordings captured by Xbox One Kinect and Cortana in people’s homes, a report by Motherboard has revealed.
It’s a practice that started at the beginning of the Xbox One’s life cycle to improve the voice command system run through the Kinect, but several contractors said they listened to audio accidentally picked up and recorded by owners’ consoles as well.
“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 said (as the contractors had signed NDAs, Motherboard kept them anonymous to protect their identities).
“Occasionally I heard ‘Xbox, tell Solas to heal,’ or something similar, which would be a command for Dragon Age: Inquisition,” a former contractor said. Had I owned an Xbox I’d almost be worried one came straight from me.
The former contractor also noted most of the voices they heard were of children – unsurprising that a kid might accidentally trigger the function on their console, but disconcerting none-the-less.
Microsoft announced last month Cortana will soon be dropped from the console, though it can still be controlled by an Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant device – two other companies that have come under fire for allowing contractors to review their audio.
Way back in 2013, Microsoft addressed players’ privacy concerns about the Xbox One and Kinect, insisting: “When Xbox One is on and you’re simply having a conversation in your living room, your conversation is not being recorded or uploaded.” However, it’s important to highlight here any recordings provided to contractors were made when the services were triggered – intentionally or not – and data wouldn’t leave the console without the owner’s permission.
Microsoft has owned up to these issues now though, stating in the past contractors have listened to voice recordings from services like Cortana and Skype in order to improve the service, and the former contractor mentioned the services did gradually improve.
In response to the article, a Microsoft spokesperson told Motherboard the company no longer listens to Xbox audio to improve its products.
They also explained that Microsoft had updated its general privacy statement to make it clearer that people will sometimes review collected audio from its other services, and highlighted it’s never hidden the fact this voice data is collected.
“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,” Microsoft explained.
“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.”