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Skype contractors have been listening to some of your calls

Patrick Devaney

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Privacy! What ever happened to that age old tradition of being able to reasonably expect all of your personal affairs to stay private? Ever since that first birthday reminder Facebook sent you, you’ve been fighting a losing battle to keep yourself to yourself. As well as social media, website cookies, app permissions, and small print that would literally take weeks to read, we’ve recently found out that human beings working at companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple have been listening to recordings we previously thought were only being analyzed by machines.

skype on a mobile connected to headphones

Yep, three out of the big four tech companies have been lying to us about who listens to the voice recordings we share with them. As is always the case, however, with privacy invasion stories in the modern ad-tech era, it gets worse. Humans at Microsoft, the fourth of the big four tech companies have also been playing our private conversations.

Contractors working for Microsoft are allowed to listen to some Skype calls that use Skype’s translation feature

A report by Motherboard claims that contractors working on Skype’s translation service have had access to personal conversations taking place across the app. Citing a “cache of internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings,” the report says that the contractors had access to intimate conversations between lovers, fraught conversations discussing relationship issues and problems, and recordings of people talking about sensitive and personal issues like weight loss.

Voice commands given to Microsoft’s virtual assistant, Cortana were also accessible to the contractors according to the report, though these won’t have included such intimate information like that being shared in Skype conversations.

Skype speaking different languages

It has to be said that Skype’s translation service, which the Microsoft-owned company launched in 2015 is impressive. It offers almost real-time translation on voice and video calls, as well as text conversations, between a number of different languages. The service is supposed to be run using AI and machine learning algorithms, but according to Motherboard’s insider much of the leg work is also being done by human contractors. These human contractors carry out the same job as the AI to help the machine learn how to do the job better itself.

This is how a lot of AI systems work. Humans teach algorithms to do a job until the algorithm can do it well enough itself and then even go on to teach itself how to improve efficiency. Not all AI training needs access to sensitive private information, however, like with the Skype translation service.

Whereas it could be expected that a translation algorithm would need human training, Microsoft hasn’t been very clear in making it clear to Skype users. Skype’s website does mention that audio clips taken from Skype calls will be analyzed but doesn’t say that some of the analysis will be done by humans. This is likely because, people would be a lot less likely to use a communications service, if they believed people were listening in.

The only good news to come out of this is that the contractors don’t have access to identifiable information about the user’s involved in the conversations they’re analyzing. In the grand scheme of things, however, that is a very small mercy. They might not know who you are, but they are still able to listen in on your most intimate conversations were you’re detailing some of your most private insecurities. Pretty creepy stuff.

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