According to a report from Motherboard, both the company’s Cortana digital assistant, and Skype’s Live Translation feature involve using human contractors to review and analyze recorded interactions.
Honestly, at this point, the fact that Microsoft listens to Cortana voice snippets probably isn’t all that surprising. Apparently everyone is doing it.
But, the fact that Microsoft is using contractors to listen to actual Skype conversations between two people who are unaware they’ll be snooped on feels like we’re on a whole new level.
Through a spokesperson, Microsoft told me:
Microsoft collects voice data to provide and improve voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation or translation services. We strive to be transparent about our collection and use of voice data to ensure customers can make informed choices about when and how their voice data is used. Microsoft gets customers’ permission before collecting and using their voice data.
Microsoft, in its defense, also says that it continues “to review the way we handle voice data to ensure we make options as clear as possible to customers and provide strong privacy protections.”
Look, I get it, the artificial intelligence (AI) used in all of these services requires human expertise. Teaching a computer to recognize a language and then translate it, or interpret it as a command can’t be easy.
Having written several of these stories, I’m actually not sure anymore that the issue is really that the companies listen to our interactions. That, at this point, almost seems reasonable, or at least necessary.
The problem is that they aren’t transparent about it.
Especially in the case of Skype. If I’m talking to my iPhone using Siri, in the back of my mind it seems plausible that Apple might in some way analyze that interaction. After all, I could probably rationalize that it’s almost like I’m talking to Apple anyway.
But that’s not true about Skype. We use Skype to make person-to-person calls. There’s really no remote expectation that someone else might listen to that conversation, regardless of the fact that I’m using a service like Live Translation.
Put it this way. What if Apple, or Google, or Facebook were reviewing your text messages say, to be sure that emojis were displaying correctly? Actually, let’s not even think about that. That’s definitely not cool.
And no one wants to think about the fact that some personal, or business conversation might be reviewed at some point in the future, even if their personal information has been stripped.
The worst part about this is that it’s all totally avoidable. All of these tech companies could easily have skipped past the sketchy language that technically allows them to do this but doesn’t actually tell anyone what they’re actually doing. Instead, just tell people what you need to do to make the services we love work better.
Apple included a similar feature in iOS 13 that alerts you that an app wants to keep using your location information, and asks you to continue to consent.
In fact, Apple, Google, and Amazon could easily incentivize people to participate voluntarily. Heck, the company could even offer a $5 digital gift card to the Kindle or iTunes store for people who are willing to have their unidentifiable voice interactions included for a period of time.
If you want your customers to help you make things better, simply ask. Do it in a way that makes clear what you need, what exactly you’ll do with their information, and how they can opt out in the future if they change their mind.
You know– have a conversation.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.