If you use Skype’s AI-powered real-time translator, brief recordings of your calls may be passed to human contractors, who are expected to listen in and correct the software’s translations to improve it.
That means 10-second or so snippets of your sweet nothings, mundane details of life, personal information, family arguments, and other stuff discussed on Skype sessions via the translation feature may be eavesdropped on by strangers, who check the translations for accuracy and feed back any changes into the machine-learning system to retrain it.
Microsoft reckons it is being transparent in the way it processes recordings of people’s Skype conversations. Yet one thing is missing from that above passage: humans. The calls are analyzed by humans. The more technological among you will have assumed living, breathing people are involved at some point in fine-tuning the code and may therefore have to listen to some call samples. However, not everyone will realize strangers are, so to speak, sticking a cup against the wall of rooms to get an idea of what’s said inside, and so it bears reiterating.
Especially seeing as sample recordings of people’s private Skype calls were leaked to Vice, demonstrating that the Windows giant’s security isn’t all that. “The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” one of the translation service’s contractors told the digital media monolith.
It’s not clear right now when snippets of Skype calls are passed along to humans to analyze; presumably when the real-time translator is unable to parse a sentence, or a bungled translation is flagged up, and needs attention from a freelancer. We’ve asked Microsoft to clarify.
The translation contractors use a secure and confidential website provided by Microsoft to access samples awaiting playback and analysis, which are, apparently, scrubbed of any information that could identify those recorded and the devices used. For each recording, the human translators are asked to pick from a list of AI-suggested translations that potentially apply to what was overheard, or they can override the list and type in their own.
Buried deeper in Microsoft’s all-encompassing fine print is this nugget (with our emphasis):
In a statement, a Microsoft spokesperson told us on Wednesday:
Again, not mentioning explicitly that humans are involved in analyzing private recordings from Cortana and the Skype translator is arguably not that transparent. Also, if audio samples can be leaked to journalists, we question these “high privacy standards.”
Separately, spokespeople for the US tech titan claimed in an email to El Reg that users’ audio data is only collected and used after they opt in, however, as we’ve said, it’s not clear folks realize they are opting into letting strangers snoop on multi-second stretches of their private calls and Cortana commands. You can also control what voice data Microsoft obtains, and how to delete it, via a privacy dashboard, we were reminded.
In short, Redmond could just say flat out it lets humans pore over your private and sensitive calls and chats, as well as machine-learning software, but it won’t because it knows folks, regulators, and politicians would freak out if they knew the full truth.
This comes as Apple stopped using human contractors to evaluate people’s conversations with Siri, and Google came under fire in Europe for letting workers snoop on its smart speakers and assistant. Basically, as we’ve said, if you’re talking to or via an AI, you’re probably also talking to a person – and perhaps even the police. ®
Additional reporting by Richard Speed.