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Microsoft Will Continue Letting Workers Listen to Skype, Cortana Recordings

August 14, 2019, 10:17 PM UTC

Microsoft has updated its privacy policy to disclose that human transcribers may listen to recordings of people using its Skype calling service and Cortana virtual assistant.

The switch comes in reaction to recent criticism of Microsoft along with Google, Facebook, and Apple for using human transcribers to review audio quality of their voice products and to train translation or transcription algorithms. Those critics said that the companies failed to adequately notify users about their practices.

While Google, Apple, and Facebook have recently said they would pause use of human transcribers, Microsoft will not. In a statement, Microsoft merely said that it had updated its “privacy statement and product FAQs to add greater clarity and will continue to examine further steps we might be able to take.”

The use of humans to process data is a crucial element of many artificial intelligence or machine learning systems. Those systems rely on large volumes of high-quality data to establish patterns for recognizing everything from street signs to speech patterns.

But the idea that private conversations could be sampled has triggered predictable backlash. Vice first reported last week that human reviewers listened to certain Skype calls— even ones that included discussions of personal issues and apparent phone sex. Previously, the Guardian found that Apple’s contractors performing similar functions for that company’s Siri digital assistant overheard everything from confidential medical information to drug deals. Amazon has also allowed workers to listen to users interacting with its Alexa assistant.

It’s unclear whether Facebook, Google, and Apple’s review will resume. But, in general, some human role may be necessary long-term if the companies want to improve their technology underlying their digital assistants.

There is a small silver lining for users who value their privacy. The Skype samples heard by humans were only five to ten seconds long, although a worker told Vice that the excerpts could be longer.

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