Microsoft's contractors listened in on Xbox users

The "human review" of AI systems extended to Cortana on Xbox, according to a Vice report.

Corinne Reichert Senior Editor
Corinne Reichert (she/her) grew up in Sydney, Australia and moved to California in 2019. She holds degrees in law and communications, and currently writes news, analysis and features for CNET across the topics of electric vehicles, broadband networks, mobile devices, big tech, artificial intelligence, home technology and entertainment. In her spare time, she watches soccer games and F1 races, and goes to Disneyland as often as possible.
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Corinne Reichert
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Is Microsoft listening in on you?

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Microsoft's contractors listened in on Xbox players using Cortana voice control features, Vice reported Wednesday. Voice data was also captured from the Kinect system's voice commands prior to Cortana being added in 2016, according to the report.

Microsoft last week revealed that humans could be listening to "short snippets" of voice conversations on its audio services, including Skype and virtual assistant Cortana. That followed similar revelations about other big tech firms and their audio services. Earlier this month, AppleGoogle and Amazon all suspended human review of user audio recordings, and then Facebook followed suit.

Microsoft said in an emailed statement Wednesday that it has "long been clear" that it collects voice data that's sometimes reviewed by people.

"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," the spokesperson said.

In a further statement Wednesday night, Microsoft said it stopped reviewing Xbox voice content taken "a number of months ago, as we no longer felt it was necessary."

"We have no plans to restart those reviews," the spokesperson added in an emailed statement. "We occasionally review a low volume of voice recordings sent from one Xbox user to another when there are reports that a recording violated our terms of service and we need to investigate. This is done to keep the Xbox community safe and is clearly stated in our Xbox terms of service."

The Xbox eavesdropping "came up first as a bit of an outlier, then became about half of what we did before becoming most of what we did," a former Microsoft contractor reportedly told Vice.

Microsoft's privacy statement says human review is used to help build, train and improve the accuracy of its artificial intelligence systems.

Cortana was removed from Xbox headsets in July, though it can still be used via the Cortana phone app.

Originally published Aug. 21, 1:51 p.m. PT.
Updates, 3:41 p.m.: Adds statement from Microsoft; Aug. 22: Includes further statement from Microsoft.

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