Contractors working for Microsoft are reportedly listening to some Skype conversations, as well as some conversations consumers have with the tech giant’s voice assistant, Cortana.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a contractor told Motherboard that Microsoft’s contractors listen to some select conversations recorded via Skype’s Translator service. The contractor also provided the news outlet with a cache containing internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings.

The recorded audio contained various kinds of conversations. Some of them had people talking to their loved ones. Some featured conversations about relationship problems. Some were about a person’s weight loss issues.  

Some of the files also indicated that contractors were able to listen in on some user conversations with Cortana. The contractor simply described some of these recordings as “phone sex.”

“I've heard people entering full addresses in Cortana commands, or asking Cortana to provide search returns on pornography queries,” the contractor explained.

Microsoft’s defense

Microsoft clarified to Motherboard that it is taking the necessary steps to ensure that consumers are able to make “informed choices.”

The tech giant said it gets customers’ permission before collecting voice data. After collecting data, it then works to “de-identify” recordings before sending them to vendors. The tech company added that it requires vendors to sign non-disclosure agreements, and to meet relevant European laws.

Nevertheless, the Skype Translator FAQ, as well as documentation regarding Cortana, do not explicitly say that humans might listen to collected voice data.

What privacy experts say

While the audio snippets are short at 5 to 10 seconds on average, and that they do not provide enough detail to specify who the person speaking is, the fact remains that humans --not AI-- are listening to them. This alarms privacy experts.

Pat Walshe, from Privacy Matters, said Skype’s translator service was presented in such a way that people will believe that AI, no humans, will be listening. But after reviewing the Skype Translator FAQ, hs said the service doesn’t have transparency and fair processing.

“This whole area needs a regulatory review,” Walshe said.

Frederike Kaltheuner, data exploitation program lead at activist group Privacy International, agrees with Walshe’s sentiment.

“Companies should be 100% transparent about the ways people's conversations are recorded and how these recordings are being used," she said.