Microsoft's privacy policy admits contractors listen to Cortana, Skype recordings

There's no way to opt out, for now

Credit: Dreamstime

Microsoft’s updated privacy policy acknowledges that the company is allowing humans to listen to recordings made by Cortana and other speech services, and the company has not yet allowed customers to opt out.

Microsoft’s privacy issues follow similar problems with Google’s Assistant as well as Apple, where contractors revealed that humans are allowed access to snippets of recorded conversations to improve the performance of the respective devices.

Vice’s Motherboard also revealed similar practices going on at Microsoft, specifically with regards to Skype and Cortana.

Microsoft’s privacy policy now claims, among other things, that humans listen to speech recorded by users.

“To build, train, and improve the accuracy of our automated methods of processing (including AI), we manually review some of the predictions and inferences produced by the automated methods against the underlying data from which the predictions and inferences were made,” Microsoft says.

“For example, we manually review short snippets of a small sampling of voice data we have taken steps to de-identify to improve our speech services, such as recognition and translation.”

Microsoft has said previously that Cortana will record your voice when it thinks that you’re accessing it or dictating speech. But it now says that the recordings may be subject to “transcription of audio recordings by Microsoft employees and vendors,” subject to local laws and restrictions.

Microsoft does provide a list of all recordings it makes using your voice, including a transcription of what it believes the voice is saying, on its privacy dashboard.

It’s worth reviewing; mine contains random notes and questions of Cortana, but also snippets of the voices of my kids playing the family Xbox, chatting randomly to friends and each other. There’s certainly no need for Microsoft to be recording the latter.

Microsoft does provide some privacy options: In the Windows 10 privacy settings, for example, you can turn off your PC’s mic access entirely, or place app-by-app limits on its ability to listen in.

You can turn off “Hey Cortana” functionality entirely, too. (If you don’t, Windows is always listening for the “Hey Cortana” trigger.) The privacy dashboard also allows you to clear the activity.

However, Microsoft isn’t allowing you to block your voice samples from being reviewed by third parties, whether they’re Microsoft employees or third-party contractors. And that means you can never be totally sure that your conversations remain totally private.

At the top of the privacy dashboard, Microsoft has placed a photo of chief executive Satya Nadella with the caption: “Your data, powering your experiences, controlled by you.”

Nadella’s statement then goes on to explain how consumers are in control of their data with “easy-to-use tools and clear choices,” and how Microsoft will be “transparent about data collection and use so you can make informed decisions.”

Unfortunately, Microsoft appears to have made one privacy decision without giving its customers the power to opt out: letting contractors review your private recordings, without identifying which recordings or allowing customers the ability to prevent it from happening. 

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Tags MicrosoftWindows 10Skype for Business

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Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
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