Microsoft Listened to Xbox Players, Including Children, Contractors Say

Former Microsoft contract workers say that they frequently listened to recordings of people using Microsoft’s Kinect accessory for the Xbox video game console, according to a new report.

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 since the news about the practice, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook said they would suspend their reviews, while Microsoft said it would continue.

In the article about Kinect, which allowed users to control an Xbox with voice or gestures, 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, passed in 2013, makes 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 actions like search because of the importance of handicapped people being able to use speech to control technology.

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.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its reviewing of audio from Kinect or how it handles data from users under 13.

In February, the FTC levied its largest-ever COPPA fine—$5.6 million—on the website, 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 device’s Internet-connected microphone, which is always on. The Kinect was discontinued in Oct. 2017.

Privacy groups have raised similar concerns about voice-controlled digital assistants. In April, a ne

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What the Business Roundtable Pledge Means to Tech—Whether Companies Signed It or Not

In light of a recent pledge by 181 corporate leaders to expand their priorities beyond driving shareholder value, several big technology companies have said they fully support the new standards. But don’t expect a major shift in corporate culture—many of the firms say the agreement doesn’t really change the way they operate.

Earlier this week, the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs for some of the nation’s largest companies, pledged to run their businesses in the interest of all stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, and the surrounding community. The agreement signaled a shift from the more traditional business practice of placing shareholder value above all else.

Leaders from tech companies including Apple, Amazon, Salesforce, Oracle, and Cisco all signed the pledge. And though they are not part of the Business Roundtable, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Intel also say they support the philosophy, and carry it out by doing things like tying employee compensation to specific goals or releasing progress reports on environmental impact or social responsibility.

But the Business Roundtable agreement raised all sorts of new questions about how companies will push the needle forward with the new commitment. For example, will they review all wage practices to ensure fair and balanced pay? Will they agree to stop using offshore bank accounts? Would they tie executive compensation to improvements in their carbon footprint? Might they opt for a product feature that will benefit consumers or society, even if it’s not the best for the company’s bottom line?

Overall: Does this agreement mean businesses promise to be good corporate citizens?

“It really is kind of a wait and see,” says David Larcker, director of the Corporate Governance Research Institute at Stanford University. “Is this P.R., or is this substantive where things are going to change?”

For true change, Larcker said that the change has to start with the board. The board, which likely has to bring other stakeholders like employees to the table, now has to evaluate the company across a broad spectrum of goals versus solely on financial performance. In some cases, that could mean shareholder value would decline as the company invests in other priorities like environmental impact.

“There’s likely to be an economic tradeoff, and everyone needs to be prepared to understand what that is,” Larcker says.


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New York Sues the EPA to Force GE to Resume Cleanup of Hudson River Contamination

New York officials who are pushing for additional cleanup of the Hudson River followed through Wednesday on their promise of a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The federal lawsuit seeks to vacate the EPA’s decision in April not to compel General Electric to restart dredging for polychlorinated biphenyls from the upper river. Agency officials had said more time and testing are needed to fully assess the $1.7 billion Superfund cleanup.

Boston-based GE discharged tons of PCBs from factories north of Albany decades ago and completed removal of 2.75 million cubic yards (2.1 million cubic meters) of contaminated river sediment in 2015.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James, both Democrats, said they bought the lawsuit because PCB contamination in the river and its fish remain unacceptably high. They argue that the “certificate of completion” issued to GE by the EPA in April was unlawful because the agency failed to ensure the cleanup would assure the protection of human health and the environment. They want the certificate voided.

“I think the federal government is just letting a known, recognized polluter off the hook,” Cuomo told reporters Wednesday. “Finish the job, GE, before you leave.”

The EPA said Wednesday it does not comment on pending litigation. EPA officials have said that GE can still be compelled in the coming decades to do more work if new information comes in that causes the agency to conclude that more work is needed.

Environmental groups and public officials in New York have argued for a new round of dredging for several years.

GE spokesman Mark Behan wrote in an email that GE met all its obligations and that 99% of locations sampled in the upper river met the project’s cleanup standard.

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