Matthew HughesFormer TNW Reporter
Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twi Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twitter.
An explosive article in Motherboard alleges that contractors working for Microsoft are listening to the conversations of Skype users conducted through the app’s real-time translation service. The piece, penned by cybersecurity reporter Joseph Cox, cites a trove of internal documentation, screenshots, and audio recordings obtained by the publication.
Audio of captured recordings depict deeply personal conversations whose subject matter touches on several sensitive topics, including relationship woes, ongoing struggles with weight loss, and even exchanges that resemble phone sex.
According to Motherboard, the recordings last between five and ten seconds, although some snippets are somewhat larger.
Motherboard also alleges, based on the same cache of documents, that Microsoft contractors are also listening to voice commands issued to Cortana – the company’s flagship digital assistant.
In the terms and conditions for Skype, Microsoft says that the company may analyze audio of translated phone calls in order to improve the quality of the service, although it doesn’t state whether this will be done by humans or algorithms.
That, arguably, isn’t the primary issue here. When using any experimental technology, there’s always a reasonable assumption that any activity will be monitored and analyzed – although, in retrospect, Microsoft should have made it clearer that there would be a human element to this analysis. The main problem is that recordings of calls are seemingly unprotected, as one anonymous contractor explained to Cox:
“The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” they said.
In responding to the piece, Microsoft states that it has procedures in place to protect user’s privacy, including de-identifying data. Despite that, the Motherboard article states that the source for the piece has heard full addresses spoken to Cortana.
Microsoft also adds that it requires non-disclosure agreements between its outsourcing partners and their employees, and it strives to meet the privacy standards established within European law.
The timing for this piece comes not long after Amazon, Apple, and Google all found themselves embroiled in a similar scandal, after it transpired that some third-party contractors were eavesdropping on conversations with Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant respectively.
The passage of time, as well as the inclusion of more stringent privacy safeguards, allowed these companies to weather that particular storm.
Microsoft might not find it as easy, however. Released in 2015, Skype Translate is an increadibly popular product, and is used by both consumer and business users. It’s the latter category who may offer the biggest backlash to Microsoft, over concerns their commercially sensitive conversations weren’t being sufficiently protected against third-party monitoring and leakage.
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