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Microsoft admits using contractors to listen to Xbox gamers

Microsoft has admitted hiring contractors to listen to audio of Xbox users after reports that children were among those that had been heard.

Just a week after Facebook said it carried out the same practice for its Messenger app, the tech giant told Sky News it had used humans to review clips in the hope of improving voice-enabled services on the Xbox One.

While it has stopped doing so since its Siri-style assistant named Cortana was stripped from the console, Microsoft said audio was still reviewed in cases in which gamers are reported for violating its terms of service.

Image: Microsoft has made voice commands a big part of Xbox One since the console launched in 2013

“We stopped reviewing any voice content taken through Xbox for product improvement purposes a number of months ago, as we no longer felt it was necessary, and have no plans to restart those reviews,” a spokesman said.

“We occasionally review a low volume of voice recordings sent from one Xbox user to another when there are reports that a recording violated our terms of service and we need to investigate. This is done to keep the Xbox community safe and is clearly stated in our Xbox terms of service.”


Microsoft had allowed gamers to talk to their Xbox One since the console launched in 2013, when it came packaged with a camera and microphone called Kinect, which was later scrapped.

The Xbox One added Cortana in 2016, although that was also removed earlier this year and the console now relies on a smartphone app or smart speakers like Amazon Alexa for voice commands.

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Contractors hired by Microsoft had told tech site Motherboard that it often listened to clips heard by Kinect and Cortana, when users triggered voice controls on their console by saying “Xbox” or “Hey Cortana”.

One who worked on Xbox audio data from 2014 to 2015 told Motherboard that most of the voices they heard were of children, who used their voice to launch games and issue other commands.

Image: Amazon Alexa can be used to issue commands to the Xbox

Microsoft is the latest in an increasingly long line of major tech companies forced to address the issue of what is done with voice recordings.

Facebook has also admitted using contractors to listen to and transcribe recordings of users without their knowledge, but stopped carrying out the practice earlier this month.

While the only recordings used were taken from people who had opted in to having their voice transcribed to help the company improve its tools, they had expected to have only been heard by an AI.

Instead, Facebook was until recently using contractors to review audio, which was sent via the Messenger app.

Earlier this month, Apple suspended access to Siri recordings for contractors following claims by a former worker that they “regularly” overheard confidential and intimate encounters, including drug deals and people having sex.

Amazon staff have reportedly heard “distressing” recordings taken by Alexa voice assistants and have recently said the practice has been halted, as has Google.


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