According to leaked insider information obtained by Vice’s Motherboard, Microsoft contractors are listening in on some Skype calls made using the app’s translation feature.
Leaked documents and screenshots obtained by Motherboard reveal that Microsoft contract workers are listening in on personal conversations of Skype users that are using the app’s translation service. According to Skype’s website, the company reserves the right to analyze audio and phone calls through the app’s translation feature in order to improve the translation service. However, it doesn’t note that human workers will be doing some of this analysis by listening in on calls.
According to audio obtained by Motherboard, the recorded calls include conversations between loved ones, some talking about personal issues and others discussing relationship problems. A Microsoft contractor who provided a number of files to Motherboard stated: “The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data.”
Skype launched its Translator service in 2015 which allows users to perform near real-time audio translations during phone calls. The service uses artificial intelligence but some of the work involved in the service is done by human completing the same tasks that the AI is supposed to do, supposedly in order to improve algorithms. The Skype Translator FAQ page states: “Skype collects and uses your conversation to help improve Microsoft products and services. To help the translation and speech recognition technology learn and grow, sentences and automatic transcripts are analyzed and any corrections are entered into our system, to build more performant services.”
Another section of the FAQ states: “To help the technology learn and grow, we verify the automatic translations and feed any corrections back into the system, to build more performant services.” However, it is not clarified that human workers could listen in on audio captured by the Translator feature.
Microsoft commented on the issue in the following statement to Motherboard saying:
Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services. We strive to be transparent about our collection and use of voice data to ensure customers can make informed choices about when and how their voice data is used. 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. We continue to review the way we handle voice data to ensure we make options as clear as possible to customers and provide strong privacy protections.
One contractor that worked on the translator project told Motherboard: “I generally feel like that while we do not have access to user identifiable information, that if Microsoft users were aware that random people sitting at home in their pajamas who could be joking online with friends about the stuff they just heard that they wouldn’t like that.”