Commands spoken to Cortana and the Kinect sensor were stored and heard to by human listeners
Microsoft hired contract workers to listen to recordings of conversations Xbox One players had with the console's voice command features, it has been revealed.
The news comes in the wake of Microsoft admitting to using contractors to listen to recordings of its users when they engage with its Cortana voice assistant, and when using the translations features of Skype.
Microsoft joins a long line of the world's biggest technology companies, including Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, who have all been found to have listened to recordings of their users. It was reported that contractors said most of the voices they heard were of children
All of the companies say they hired contractors to do this in a bid to improve the accuracy of voice assistants like Alexa and Siri, and translation services. But, because the voice services sometimes listen by mistake, the contractors have reported hearing private conversations not intended for the voice assistant (let alone other people) to hear.
Some of Microsoft's contractors told Motherboard about how they were hired to listen to audio recordings of voice commands uttered to the Xbox One games console, in a bid to improve how the system works. The recordings came from both the console's Kinect sensor, and when gamers spoke directly to the console's Cortana voice assistant.
The voice system can be used by gamers to start conversations with friends, invite friends to join them in a game, take screenshots or video recordings of their gameplay, navigate the console's user interface, and play media.
Reportedly paid $10 an hour, the contractors said most of the recordings they were asked to analyze began with an Xbox player saying "Xbox" or "Cortana." But some recordings were triggered by accident. They worked on recordings set off with the 'Xbox' command through 2014 and 2015, then transitioned over to recordings of conversations had with Cortana, as that was added to the Xbox One in 2016.
Microsoft removed its Cortana voice assistant from the Xbox One in July this year, but it can still be used to control the console via the Cortana iOS and Android smartphone apps. The Console can also be controlled by speaking to Alexa or Google Assistant on a nearby Amazon or Google smart speaker.
Microsoft maintains that it has always told users (via the terms of service which few if any actually read) that voice data is collected to improve its services, However, it only updated its terms of service this month to explicitly say that humans may be part of this collection and review process.
"We've recently updated our privacy statement to add greater clarity that people sometimes review this data as part of the product improvement process," said Microsoft in a statement. "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," the company added.