My older relatives often refuse to give me sensitive information over the phone because they’re convinced that someone is listening.
I have no idea how this started, but it probably has something to do with the paranoia that goes hand-in-hand with the insane amount of technology that we rely on to get through the day.
That paranoia isn’t entirely unfounded. It was recently revealed that Facebook, Google and Oracle know what porn you’re watching – even when you’re in incognito mode.
Nothing is sacred anymore.
Which brings us to Skype.
VICE reports that Motherboard uncovered some internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings that revealed some unsettling facts about Skype’s translation service.
Although Skype’s website says that the company may analyze audio of phone calls that a user wants to translate in order to improve the chat platform’s services, it does not say some of this analysis will be done by humans.
The system is supposed to use AI to generate real-time audio translations during phone and video calls. Instead, it appears that humans are involved.
The Skype audio obtained by Motherboard includes conversations from people talking intimately to loved ones, some chatting about personal issues such as their weight loss, and others seemingly discussing relationship problems. Other files obtained by Motherboard show that Microsoft contractors are also listening to voice commands that users speak to Cortana, the company’s voice assistant.
Google recently stopped using human transcribers for its Alexa system after people freaked out about it.
“The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” a Microsoft contractor who provided the cache of files to Motherboard said. Motherboard granted the source anonymity to speak more candidly about internal Microsoft practices, and because the person is under a non-disclosure agreement with the company.
The snippets of information are short – only five to 10 seconds – but longer files do exist.
Microsoft said both its Skype Translator FAQ and documentation on Cortana are clear in that the company uses voice data to improve their services. Again, they do not say a human may listen to that voice data, however.
When a contractor is given a piece of audio to transcribe they are also given a series of translations generated by Skype’s translation system.
“Some stuff I’ve heard could clearly be described as phone sex. I’ve heard people entering full addresses in Cortana commands, or asking Cortana to provide search returns on pornography queries. While I don’t know exactly what one could do with this information, it seems odd to me that it isn’t being handled in a more controlled environment,” the contractor said.
…”I generally feel like that while we do not have access to user identifiable information, that if Microsoft users were aware that random people sitting at home in their pajamas who could be joking online with friends about the stuff they just heard that they wouldn’t like that.”
Nope, that’s not ideal.
Then again, most Skype calls consist of both parties asking if the other can hear them properly, followed by some peering directly into the camera from close quarters.
WhatsApp calls – far more secure. Or so we’re told…
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