'Contractors' Listen to Live Skype Calls

John Lister's picture

Microsoft contractors listen to some Skype calls to check the accuracy of translations, a whistleblower has revealed. Although Microsoft says it meets privacy laws, critics say its terms and conditions don't clearly warn users about this.

The human listening takes place on some calls that use Skype's "automatic" real-time translation service. Until now, most users have assumed that the translation is done entirely by a combination of speech recognition and artificial intelligence to work out the context of a sentence and find the correct translations.

While that's largely the case, a contractor who spoke to publication "Motherboard" says that in some cases humans are used to improve the service. They will hear a five-to-ten second clip from the conversation, be shown several possible translations suggested by the automated system, and select the best. They will do this almost instantly and the selected translation is then sent to the person at the other end of the call, quickly enough that it appears entirely automatic.

Terms And Conditions Disputed

The contractor provided Motherboard with screenshots of the process along with some of the audio clips involved. These included personal conversations, with the contractor saying they have heard some clips of an explicitly adult nature. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

The Skype terms and conditions do note that "To help the translation and speech recognition technology learn and grow, sentences and automatic transcripts are analyzed and any corrections are entered into our system, to build more performant services."

They also say that "To help the technology learn and grow, we verify the automatic translations and feed any corrections back into the system, to build more performant services." (Source: vice.com)

Critics: Opt-Out A Must

There's no specific mention that humans will listen to the audio clips: users must instead deduce this from the conditions. There's also no mention at all that the analysis and verification - in other words the human listening to the audio - happens while the call is ongoing.

Privacy campaigners says Microsoft needs to be much clearer about the fact that humans listen to clips of the conversation. They also say Microsoft should actively ask if users are happy to have their conversations listened to and be able to opt out while still using the service.

What's Your Opinion?

Are you surprised humans listen to sections of calls? Is the wording of the terms and conditions clear enough on this point? Should Microsoft get explicit permission before doing this?

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Dennis Faas's picture

It's one thing to analyze a call after it's been made, but live translations are a bit creepy. You have to wonder just how much of that phone conversation is being listened to, as 10 seconds may not be long enough to accurately translate the context. Also if the same call needs multiple translations, are the 'clips' sent to random persons or the same person? More clarity is needed. I would certainly want to opt out of having my conversations eavesdropped on.