Microsoft Xbox One X (Project Scorpio)

Report: Xbox Recordings Reviewed by Microsoft Contractors

Microsoft contractors reviewed recordings from Xbox users according to a report by Vice. This the second report about Microsoft contractors listening to recorded audio in recent weeks, after contractors shared that they had listened to Skype and Cortana voice assistant recordings.

Xbox Live Records

Xbox systems have Cortana-powered voice assistants in them, awoken when it hears “Xbox” or “Hey Cortana.” Some of the recordings made by the system are then used to improve the artificial intelligence by humans checking how the voice assistant responds.

The problem is when the recordings, which are supposed to be stripped of identifying details, still reveal information about the user. It gets worse when the voice assistant is awoken accidentally, and people unknowingly record sensitive, personal information that is then heard by a contractor. And, since it’s a game system, that only makes the unintentional recording of children more likely.

The Cortana and Xbox user agreements both mention that recordings will be used to make the respective products better. Correcting errors helps Microsoft improve the performance of Xbox and Cortana. Still, agreements say nothing about contractors manually reviewing the recordings. Microsoft has already been planning to removing Cortana from Xbox systems, though the Xbox skill on the Cortana app will remain.

A Voicebot survey in 2018 found 28.5 percent of smart speaker users said they noticed false wake-ups at least once a day, and 43.7 percent said it happens at least once per month. Game systems aren’t exactly the same as a smart speaker, but the principle applies, and those numbers don’t include when people didn’t even notice their devices activating.

Every AI (And Contractor) Listens

It’s no surprise that Xbox audio records are listened to by Microsoft contractors. A similar report about Amazon Alexa recordings came out in April and July saw the same revelations about Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Facebook is facing its own, even more troubling  problems about recordings made over its Messenger platform

The interest in how these companies use voice recordings, and what information is sent to contractors, has already led to some changes. Google and Apple put a pause on their quality assurance listening programs. Google’s temporary halt applies to the whole European Union and their announcement came out just as German authorities ordered the company to stop running the program in their country pending the results of an investigation into the practices.

Apple paused their program worldwide, with plans to restart it as an opt-in system. Amazon’s review program continues, but with service agreement changes that explicitly say some of the data will be reviewed by humans manually and offers the user a chance to opt-out.

As a study Microsoft published shows, 41 percent of voice assistant users are concerned about passive listening devices invading their privacy. What Microsoft and other voice assistant makers do about their contractor review program, the fight about privacy versus improving software is going to heat up before any resolution.


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