MicrophoneGate: The world’s biggest tech companies were caught sending sensitive audio from customers to human contractors. Here’s where they stand now.

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Florence Fu/Tech Insider

  • Over the past several months, we’ve seen a slew of reports about how audio recordings captured by voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana were sent off to human contractors for further evaluation.
  • In the case of Siri, for instance, contractors “regularly” heard recordings of people having sex, business deals, and private doctor-patient discussions, according to a July report.
  • Many of these companies have since suspended or halted these manual-review practices entirely, but it’s important to know if you own any gadgets with microphones in them.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If you own a device with a microphone in it, chances are that audio snippets were recorded – with or without your knowledge – and sent off to other human beings for examination.

This year, we’ve seen a handful of reports all saying the same thing: The biggest tech companies in the world still need humans to evaluate the accuracy of their AI assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana, which still have issues recognizing speech. The way it works is those humans – often contractors, not full-time employees of these tech conglomerates – are responsible for quality control. They grade responses from voice assistants to see if they were actually helpful.

Read more: Apple contractors working on Siri ‘regularly’ hear recordings of sex, drug deals, and private medical information, a new report says

These tech companies often go to extreme lengths to ensure privacy and confidentiality, but contractors who wish to remain anonymous have said that it’s not hard to identify who’s talking when audio recordings often include names and addresses.

Since reports on some of these reports came out, many of these tech companies have decided to either suspend their voice-analysis practices, or halt them entirely.

Here’s what we know about each of the tech companies, and how they currently handle your audio.


Apple recently suspended its practice of sending Siri audio to contractors, saying it would not restart the program until it’s been thoroughly reviewed.

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Oll Scarff/Getty Images

This happened after a report from The Guardian shed light on how Apple’s contractors regularly heard extremely sensitive information from Siri users, and an anonymous contractor went on the record to explain how there were “no specific procedures to deal with sensitive recordings,” claiming they were vulnerable to misuse.

Apple suspended this program less than a week after The Guardian’s report, and Apple will reportedly allow users to opt-out of Siri quality assurance in a future software update. According to the Irish Examiner, Apple contractors were reportedly listening to over 1,000 recordings every shift.


Google says it has suspended its practice of having contractors evaluate audio recorded by Google Assistant.

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Google’s advert for Google Assistant.
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Made by Google/YouTube

Previously, Google said only a “fraction” of audio recordings for Assistant were chosen for manual review, and Google told Business Insider that no recordings were associated with any personal identifying information. Now, though, Google offers a way to manage your voice-request history and opt out of human review.


Amazon reportedly has thousands of employees and contractors around the world manually reviewing and transcribing clips from Alexa users, but now allows people to opt-out of human review.

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Jim Tanner/Reuters

According to Bloomberg, Amazon workers were known to share audio snippets with each other – usually to help figure out a word, but sometimes to commiserate when they hear something distressing in a recording.


Microsoft had contractors that listened to audio recorded by people’s Xbox game consoles, as well as some Skype calls, but the company said they stopped recording voice content “a number of months ago,” and they have “no plans to re-start those reviews.”

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Target

Reports from Vice and Motherboard shed light on how many Microsoft contractors often heard children’s voices, and lots of accidental activations where people thought their Xbox assistants could control whatever was happening in the game.

Microsoft contractors were also surprised to hear voice recordings from Skype that contained intimate conversations with loved ones and the like.


Facebook recently confirmed that it was collecting audio from some voice chats on Messenger, but said it will no longer do this.

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Shutterstock

According to Bloomberg, Facebook’s contractors were told to transcribe audio without knowing how it was obtained in the first place. The company said they “paused” this practice in late July.