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Microsoft workers listen to some Skype calls, report says

The company says it has procedures in place to protect privacy.

Skype calls may not be so private.
Josh Miller/CNET

Microsoft contractors listen to recordings of some Skype conversations to help improve its translation feature, Motherboard reported Wednesday. Skype's website does state it "collects and uses" conversations that utilize the translation feature in order to improve products and services, but according to Motherboard it doesn't specify that this includes human review.

Microsoft's practice with Skype appears similar that of Apple, Amazon and Google, which ask reviewers to analyze some recordings made with their voice assistants. Each of the companies has said it's a key way to improve their systems. Apple, however, last week said it will suspend its program and give people the ability to opt out of the review of Siri recordings. Amazon and Google have made similar moves following public concern over privacy.

Skype, which was founded in 2003 and scooped up by Microsoft in 2011, lets people make video and voice calls over the internet.

Microsoft didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a statement to Motherboard, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company "collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services." 

The spokesperson added: "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."

Skype audio that contractors listen to includes intimate conversations about relationship problems and personal issues such as weight loss, according to Motherboard. Audio recordings that were provided to Motherboard ranged between 5 and 10 seconds, but reportedly can run longer. Contractors also reportedly listen to voice commands that users speak to Cortana, Microsoft's virtual assistant.

Skype's real-time translation of voice calls currently works for 10 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian.