Microsoft contractors have listened to audio recordings of Xbox users speaking in their homes, a report by Motherboard has revealed. Audio from Xbox One users was sometimes triggered and recorded by mistake when contractors were working to improve the console’s voice command functions.
The practise began at the beginning of the Xbox One’s life cycle but was only meant to capture audio following voice commands like “Xbox” or “Hey Cortana.” It’s the latest example of contractors working on behalf of Microsoft to listen to audio captured by several of the company’s products. An earlier Motherboard report revealed that human contractors were listening to some Skype calls and audio recorded by Microsoft’s virtual assistant, Cortana.
“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 former contractor told Motherboard. “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 current contractor said. Each contractor signed an NDA so Motherboard has kept them anonymous to protect their identities.
The Xbox One launched in 2013 with the capability to be controlled via voice commands using Kinect. At the time, many were concerned with the idea of Kinect listening to Xbox users, but Microsoft released a statement addressing privacy concerns saying that “Kinect for Xbox 360 was designed and built with strong privacy protections in place and the new Kinect will continue this commitment.”
“The Xbox stuff was actually a bit of a welcome respite, honestly,” the former contractor added. “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 former contractor said that most of the voices they heard were of children, and that listening continued as the Xbox One moved from using Kinect for voice commands over to Cortana in 2016. A current contractor provided Motherboard with a document, describing how workers should work with different types of Cortana audio, including Xbox voice commands.
“A domain for controlling gaming features, such as finding friends lists, creating a ‘party,’ inviting players to a party. Most Xbox controlling will belong to this domain,” the document reads. A “domain” is a topic that transcribed Cortana audio should be sorted into to improve the system.
Microsoft has now owned up to these issues, and the service did gradually improve. “As time went on, we got less apparently accidental stuff as the feature improved,” the former contractor said. Microsoft removed Cortana from Xbox One back in July, but the virtual assistant can still be used to control the console via the Cortana Android and iOS apps.
A Microsoft spokesperson responded to Motherboard’s report, saying that the company recently stopped listening to audio to improve its products. “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,” the spokesperson said. “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 recently updated our privacy statement to add greater clarity that people sometimes review this data as part of the product improvement process,” the company added. “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 a dedicated page for users to delete any audio captured by the company’s products.