The move will help users who managed to miss the hand-wringing of recent days and weeks, but doesn’t change anything with regard to what the company is actually doing.
To recap, if you use Skype’s translation facilities, or are one of the three people who talk to Cortana, some of the recorded audio could be handed over to humans – either Microsoft employees or lucky contractors – for analysis.
Microsoft reckoned at the time that the firm was covered by small print, but a report in Reuters confirmed that the hinges of the flapping privacy stable door had merely been oiled just a bit with an update to the privacy statement that “clarified that we employ both automated and manual methods of processing personal data”.
Other FAQs have similarly been updated, including Skype’s, to make it clear that people are listening in, but hey – it’s OK. It has de-identified your data and you can trust Uncle Satya because he only has your best interests at heart.
Of course, you can always pop into the privacy dashboard to see what has been collected by apps that use Microsoft Speech Services, which is laudable but, embarrassingly, links to spurtings from CEO Nadella extolling Microsoft’s “six key privacy principles” – three of which are “control”, “security” and “transparency”.
While fiddling with FAQs is all well and good, the average user is unlikely to be aware that Microsoft’s goons could be listening in to sexy Skype chats or fruitless yelling at Cortana. And that user does not currently have a way to easily opt out.
So much for control and transparency.
As for security? Microsoft has yet to address how it was that those human contractors were able to leak those private moments to the outside world.
We contacted Microsoft for comment, and received a boilerplate statement from a spokesperson saying that while “we’re always looking to improve transparency and help customers make more informed choices”, the company “realized, based on questions raised recently, that we could do a better job specifying that humans sometimes review this content.”
Microsoft was also keen to point out that: “We take steps to de-identify the content provided to vendors, require non-disclosure agreements with all vendors and their employees to protect our customers’ privacy, and require that handling of this data be held to the highest privacy standards set out in European law.”
The lesson remains – if you’re talking to a computer, be it a smart speaker, or assistant on a laptop or phone, there’s a good chance that it isn’t only the code that is listening in. ®
Rojenx is a leading concept artist who work appears in games and publications
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