Contractors working for Microsoft are listening to personal, intimate conversations of Skype users via the app's translation service, according to a new report.
Motherboard obtained a trove of documents, audio files and other materials that detail how contract workers can listen in on chats with loved ones, personal conversations about relationship woes and even phone sex. The conversation snippets are only a few seconds long, although some can be longer.
Microsoft is the latest Silicon Valley company facing a backlash over the ability of its workers to listen to private conversations. Reports have emerged that Amazon workers can hear conversations via its Alexa smart speaker and Google workers can do the same thanks to Google Home. Apple and Google both recently suspended the practice of having contractors listen in on smart device queries.
"The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data," a Microsoft contractor who provided files to Motherboard said.
Skype launched the artificial intelligence-powered translation service in 2015, but it turns out that humans still need to play a role in improving the work of the algorithms.
"Some stuff I've heard could clearly be described as phone sex," the contractor told Motherboard. "While I don't know exactly what one could do with this information, it seems odd to me that it isn't being handled in a more controlled environment."
According to Motherboard, Skype's FAQ section for Translator 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."
It does not specifically say that humans might be listening in on your intimate moments.
Microsoft claims the audio data is only available to contractors through a secure online portal, and that the company takes steps to remove identifying information like user or device identification numbers.
A Microsoft spokesperson told Fox News in a statement via email on Thursday: "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," the statement added.
A privacy expert told Motherboard that companies like Microsoft should alert consumers that their chats might be reviewed by humans and give them the change to opt out.
"People use Skype to call their lovers, interview for jobs, or connect with their families abroad. Companies should be 100% transparent about the ways people's conversations are recorded and how these recordings are being used," Frederike Kaltheuner, data exploitation program lead at activist group Privacy International, told the outlet.