A report by Motherboard reveals that Xbox contractors were able to listen to audio recorded by Xbox One Kinect, Cortana, and other products.
"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," says a former Microsoft contractor. "The Xbox stuff was actually a bit of a welcome respite, honestly. It was frequently the same games. Same DLCs. Same types of commands." Some of those commands reportedly included things like "Xbox give me all the games for free" or "Xbox, tell Solas to heal." The latter seems to be a reference to Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Why were these contractors able to hear all of this in the first place, and why did Microsoft pay them to listen to it? The answer to both of those questions seems to be tied to Microsoft's desire to improve the quality of their voice recognition software. One contractor did state they seemed to receive fewer accidental recording as time went on.
As many of you have already probably said to yourselves, though, that's not really the issue here. The issue is the fact that Microsoft was listening in the first place, the idea of them paying people to listen to things you probably thought were private, and the accusation that it seems much of the audio that was listened to via Xbox devices came from children.
Microsoft did respond to some of the more troubling implications and accusations raised by this report. They say that "We always get customer permission before collecting voice data" and that "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." However, there are a few things which prevent that explanation from being as satisfying as Microsoft would seem to like it to be.
First off, it seems that permission was buried deep in the tomb of terms of agreement fine print. Second, Microsoft previously stated in 2013 that "When Xbox One is on and you're simply having a conversation in your living room, your conversation is not being recorded or uploaded," which now sounds like may not always be the case given that contractors spoke of accidental recordings. Third, contractors claim they were told to not tell people what exactly they did at work, which isn't usually what a company that feels confident they aren't doing anything that's at least morally wrong tends to do.
Microsoft also says they no longer listen to Xbox audio, but we're not sure how inclined we are to believe that. Even if it is the case, it's possible to use services like Amazon's Alexa via your Xbox One, and Amazon has also been accused of listening to user audio in the past.
The point here is that anyone concerned about privacy may be better off just pushing a few buttons instead of shouting at their consoles.