Microsoft harvests unintentional audio in program that listens to Xbox users via Cortana and Kinect

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Xbox users were being recorded by Microsoft in a listening program that scraped audio from Cortana and its augmented reality hardware, Kinect. File photo


Microsoft contractors listened to ‘obviously unintentional’ audio exchanges of Xbox players caught by Cortana and Kinect – and most were KIDS

  • A report reveals that Microsoft listened to Xbox user via Cortana and Kinect
  • Contractors say audio recordings were sometimes accidentally triggered 
  • Like other programs, Microsoft was trying to improve its software’s accuracy 
  • Microsoft was previously found listening Cortana commands from other devices

Microsoft’s listening program continues to grow in scope after a new report reveals that contractors harvested unintentional audio from Xbox users through Cortana and the Kinect. 

Motherboard reports that Xbox users were recorded by Microsoft as part of a program to analyze users’ voice-commands for accuracy and that those recordings were assessed by human contractors.

While the program was designed to only scrape audio uttered after a wake-word, contractors hired by Microsoft report that some recordings were taken accidentally without provocation.

The practice, reports Motherboard, has been ongoing for several years since the early days of Xbox One and predates Xbox’s integration with its voice assistant, Cortana. 

Xbox users were being recorded by Microsoft in a listening program that scraped audio from Cortana and its augmented reality hardware, Kinect. File photo

The company analyzed commands given to the Xbox’s increasingly unpopular augmented reality hardware called the Kinect. 

‘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. 

To make matters worse, contractors say most of the voices scraped by researches were those of children says Motherboard — many of which were unintentional audio snippets taken during gameplay.

‘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,’ one current contractor said. 

While Cortana was removed from the Xbox One in July, but as Motherboard notes, users with the Cortana Android or iOS app can still control their console using a mobile device.  

Last month, Motherboard, also reported that Microsoft-owned Skype has been listening to audio of users speaking to one another via its translation service, which uses AI to convert language in nearly real-time.

Microsoft, Apple, Google, and more recently, Facebook, have all been found to harvest customer audio to improve voice assistants. That audio is then assessed by humans. File

Microsoft, Apple, Google, and more recently, Facebook, have all been found to harvest customer audio to improve voice assistants. That audio is then assessed by humans. File 

While Skype stated that it analyzed audio of phone calls conducted through the service to improve its abilities, it had never explicitly stated that humans would be doing that work. 

Conversations sucked up in the program included discussions between couples regarding relationship problems, weight loss, and what contractors described as ‘phone sex.’ 

Microsoft, unlike Google and Apple who have suspended listening programs, continues to record customer command but has updated its privacy policy to be more explicit about humans transcribing the recordings.

The privacy policy now reads, ‘Our processing of personal data for these purposes includes both automated and manual (human) methods of processing.’ 

Among the other devices found to be recording users were Amazon’s wildly popular smart speaker, Alexa, the Apple Homepod, Google Home, and Facebook through its audio messaging feature.

Similarly, these devices have regularly harvested data that most might consider private, including sex, private conversations, business, and even medical information.

IS YOUR SMARTPHONE LISTENING TO YOU TO TARGET ADS?

For years smartphone users have complained of the creepy feeling their gadget is recording their every word, even when it is sat in their pocket.

Many share a similar story: They were chatting about a niche product or holiday destination with friends, and soon afterwards an advertisement on the same theme appears in their social media apps.

According to Dr Peter Henway, a senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterisk, these oddly pertinent ads aren’t merely a coincidence and your phone regularly listens to what you say.

It’s not known exactly what triggers the technology, but Dr Henway claims the technique is completely legal and is even covered in the terms of your mobile apps’ user agreements.

Most modern smartphones are loaded with AI assistants, which are triggered by spoken commands, like ‘Hey Siri’ or ‘OK, Google’.

One cybersecurity researcher suggests that these oddly pertinent ads aren't merely a coincidence, and that your phone regularly listens in on what you say. One expert said it's not known exactly what triggers the technology (stock image) 

For years smartphone users have complained of the creepy feeling their gadget is recording their every word, even when it is sat in their pocket (stock image) 

These smartphone models are constantly listening out for the designated wake word or phrase, with everything else discarded. 

However, keywords and phrases picked-up by the gadget can be accessed by third-party apps, like Instagram and Twitter, when the right permissions are enabled, Dr Henway told Vice.

This means when you chat about needing new jeans, or plans for a holiday, apps can plaster your timeline with adverts for clothes and deals on flights.

Facebook categorically denies it uses smartphone microphones to gather information for the purposes of targeted advertising.

The company has previously said that the eerie feeling that your phone is listening to you is merely an example of heightened perception, or the phenomenon whereby people are more likely to notice things they’ve recently talked about.

A number of other companies, including WhatsApp, also deny bugging private conversations, describing any anecdotal evidence as pure coincidence. 

 

 

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