The practice, described in an article on Wednesday by tech news site Motherboard, raises new privacy concerns following a series of revelations in recent months about tech companies recording and listening to people using digital voice assistants.
The companies had been reviewing the recordings to improve the performance of voice recognition software. But in the wake of reporting about the practice, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook said they would suspend their reviews, while Microsoft said it would continue.
Kinect allowed users to control an Xbox with voice or gestures, and contractors reviewed voice recordings to improve accuracy. One Microsoft contractor from 2014 to 2015 said that most of the recorded voices they reviewed were those of children. Age is an important factor because of laws that limit the kind of data that companies can collect about minors.
The Federal Trade Commission's Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule, or COPPA was updated in 2013 to make it illegal to collect voice recordings of children who are 13 or younger. However, in 2017, the FTC issue an update, saying it would exempt recordings of children using their voices for interactions like search, in part because of the importance of handicapped young people being able to use speech controls.
The exemption would seem to extend to Microsoft's reviewing kids using their voices to control an Xbox. But that exemption didn't exist during the some of period described by the Microsoft contractors.
“We have always been serious about protecting children’s privacy and complying with COPPA and other privacy laws," said a Microsoft spokesperson. "To do this, we take steps like requiring that parents set up Microsoft accounts for children, which are needed to use Xbox, and ensuring parent’s consent to our terms of service and privacy statement on behalf of their children. Our privacy dashboard also enables parents to delete voice data collected from their children.”
In February, the FTC levied its largest-ever COPPA fine—$5.6 million—on the website Musical.ly, which has since morphed into TikTok, for collecting user data without verifying the age of those users. Such a fine would be financially insignificant to Microsoft, but the FTC has more recently settled a privacy case with Facebook for $5 billion.
Kinect debuted in 2013, and privacy watchdogs were immediately concerned about the device's Internet-connected microphone, which is always on. The Kinect was discontinued in Oct. 2017, as voice commands for Xbox migrated to the Cortana assistant.
Microsoft says it has largely stopped human review of voice recordings. “We stopped reviewing any voice content taken through Xbox for product improvement purposes a number of months ago," said a spokesperson, "As we no longer felt it was necessary, and we have no plans to re-start those reviews. 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.”
Privacy groups have raised many concerns about voice-controlled digital assistants. In April, a news report disclosed that thousands of human transcribers had listened to recordings of people using Amazon's Alexa. That was followed by similar revelations about rival voice assistants from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple.
Update 8/22/19: Updated with statements from Microsoft.
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