Contractors hired by Microsoft have been listening to voice recordings captured by the Xbox One according to a recent article by Motherboard. Recordings were taken from Xbox owners that used the Kinect camera's voice commands to control their console, and more recently, the Cortana voice assistant.
Motherboard spoke to several contractors that could listen to recordings taken from the Xbox. The audio was only supposed to be captured after the use of a voice command, but contractors said sometimes this wasn't the case and recordings were triggered by mistake.
Privacy has been a concern with the combination of the Kinect and Xbox One with many users worried that the Kinect was always listening in and waiting to hear the command "Xbox On" — now it seems there is some validity in those fears. Microsoft said in a statement at the time, "Microsoft has more than ten years of experience making privacy a top priority. Kinect for Xbox 360 was designed and built with strong privacy protections in place, and the new Kinect will continue this commitment."
One of the contractors, who had access to Xbox audio data from 2014 to 2015, told Motherboard, "Xbox commands came up first as a bit of an outlier and then became about half of what we did before becoming most of what we did."
One of the most common voices heard was of children.
"The Xbox stuff was actually a bit of a welcome respite, honestly. It was frequently the same games. Same DLCs. Same types of commands, 'Xbox give me all the games for free' or 'Xbox download [newest Minecraft skins pack]' or whatever. Occasionally I heard ‘Xbox, tell Solas to heal,’ or something similar, which would be a command for Dragon Age: Inquisition,” The listening continued when Microsoft moved voice commands over to Cortana. In July, Microsoft announced that for Xbox Insiders Cortana would be removed from the Xbox One in favour of using the Cortana app on iOS and Android.
The reason for contractors listening to recordings was to improve Microsofts products. Over time, a contractor said that less of the accidental activations occurred. However, there were still issues as contractors still heard audio from users where Cortana had been mistakenly activated. One contractor said:
"Most of the Xbox related stuff I can recall doing was obviously unintentional activations with people telling Cortana 'No' as they were obviously in the middle of a game and doing normal game chat."
A spokesperson told Motherboard in a 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.This update to Microsoft's privacy statement — that humans sometimes listen to audio recordings — wasn't added until after Motherboard's article was published.
"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.
"We’ve long been clear that we collect voice data to improve voice-enabled services and that this data is sometimes reviewed by vendors.
"We’ve recently updated our privacy statement to add greater clarity that people sometimes review this data as part of the product improvement process.
"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. 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."
Microsoft offers users a page where data collected can be viewed and deleted. If you want to see the data Microsoft has collected on you, follow this link.