Your Xbox Is Listening to You, and So Are Microsoft’s Contractors

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Microsoft Xbox owners will bummed to learn that humans have been listening to some of their voice commands. Motherboard recently spoke to a number of Microsoft contractors who said they’d been hired by the company to review Xbox and Cortana voice commands to improve the technology. This is the same sort of thing that’s been happening with all kinds of voice assistants lately, but that doesn’t make it any less unsettling.

This latest report follows an earlier Motherboard report about Microsoft hiring contractors to listen to Skype recordings. It sounds like a similar team was also recruited to review Xbox recordings in order to train the software that powers the voice control features. One contractor did say that “most of the voices they heard were of children.” Which is creepy.

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Still, it’s glaringly obvious now that adding voice control to various devices has typically involved humans listening to our recordings. The technology that powers voice control and voice assistants simply requires human review in order to improve. It’s also very clear that the companies building this technology have done a terrible job communicating this human involvement to users.

Since reports emerged earlier this year that humans were reviewing Amazon Alexa recordings, we’ve learned that similar teams were at work at Apple, Google, and Facebook. Those three companies have since suspended their human review processes. Amazon, meanwhile, has offered users the option to opt-out of being included in the human review process. And following Motherboard’s reporting, Microsoft has updated its privacy policy to specify that its “processing of personal data for these purposes includes both automated and manual (human) methods of processing.”

So game on, Xbox users. But realize that whatever you say to your console might eventually be heard by a human hired by Microsoft. They’re not exactly spying. But they are listening.

Update 08/22/2019: A Microsoft spokesperson sent us the following statement:

We stopped reviewing any voice content taken through Xbox for product improvement purposes a number of months ago, as we no longer felt it was necessary, and we have no plans to re-start those reviews. 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.

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Adam Clark Estes

Senior editor at Gizmodo.

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