Microsoft contractors have listened to voice recordings captured by the Xbox One console, according to Motherboard. The practice dates back to the early days of the Xbox One when it could be controlled with voice commands directed at the optional Kinect camera accessory, and it continued after Microsoft added its more advanced Cortana voice assistant to the console.
Motherboard spoke to several contractors who could listen to these Xbox recordings. Many of them were intentional, with users commanding the Xbox One to perform a certain function, but others were triggered accidentally by unknowing customers.
Microsoft has already confirmed contractors have similarly screened voice recordings from Cortana (on Windows) and listened to Skype calls when people used the app’s language translation feature. In all cases, Microsoft has said that it’s doing this for the purpose of improving its services and voice recognition. “We’ve long been clear that we collect voice data to improve voice-enabled services and that this data is sometimes reviewed by vendors,” the company told Motherboard.
Some of those contractors Motherboard spoke to said that they frequently heard the voices of children, which is alarming but also not surprising since we’re talking about a gaming console. Still, privacy regulations that apply to children are more strict than those for adults.
Microsoft announced last month that it plans to remove Cortana from the Xbox One; the console can still be controlled through voice commands with either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant on external smart speakers or other devices.
In recent weeks, other big tech companies, including Apple, Amazon, and Google, have faced criticism over similar reviews of contractor / employee voice recordings for Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, respectively. As customers grapple with the idea of having their conversations overheard by a stranger — something many might not have realized was occurring — companies have also claimed they’ll take steps to make their policies clearer and provide more control over these recordings.
Microsoft hasn't paused its current practices, but it says it’s also seeking to offer “greater clarity” to consumers. “We always get customer permission before collecting voice data, we take steps to de-identify voice snippets being reviewed to protect people’s privacy, and we require that handling of this data be held to the highest privacy standards in the law,” the company told Motherboard. “At the same time, we’re actively working on additional steps we can take to give customers more transparency and more control over how their data is used to improve products.”
The Verge has reached out to Microsoft for more details on the situation.