Contractors working for Microsoft have listened to audio of Xbox users speaking in their homes in order to improve the console’s voice command features, Motherboard has learned. The audio was supposed to be captured following a voice command like “Xbox” or “Hey Cortana,” but contractors said that recordings were sometimes triggered and recorded by mistake.
The news is the latest in a string of revelations that show contractors working on behalf of Microsoft listen to audio captured by several of its products. Motherboard previously reported that human contractors were listening to some Skype calls as well as audio recorded by Cortana, Microsoft’s Siri-like virtual assistant.
“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 who worked on behalf of Microsoft told Motherboard. Motherboard granted multiple sources in this story anonymity as they had signed non-disclosure agreements.
The former contractor said they worked on Xbox audio data from 2014 to 2015, before Cortana was implemented into the console in 2016. When it launched in November 2013, the Xbox One had the capability to be controlled via voice commands with the Kinect system.
The former contractor said most of the voices they heard were 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,” they added. “‘Xbox give me all the games for free’ or ‘Xbox download [newest Minecraft skins pack]’ or whatever,” they added. The former contractor was paid $10 an hour for their work, according to an employment document shared with Motherboard.
“Occasionally I heard ‘Xbox, tell Solas to heal,’ or something similar, which would be a command for Dragon Age: Inquisition,” the former contractor said, referring to hearing audio of in-game commands.
And that listening continued as the Xbox moved from using Kinect for voice commands over to Cortana. A current contractor provided a document that describes how workers should work with different types of Cortana audio, including commands given to control an Xbox.
All these guys are using this kind of voice data to improve their AI, so there’s nothing really particularly sinister in that (although they could probably turn on targeted microphones if they want and listen to YOU) but the fact that they lied about it, withheld the information from us and didn’t even mention it in their privacy statements, don’t allow you to opt out – THAT’s a problem.
BTW SONOS is also involved in this…