Why The Xbox One is, Indeed, Always Listening

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
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Before you jump at me, yes, I’ve read how the Microsoft has claimed that the XBox One and its little buddy, the Kinect, are not always online. They are not always listening, they are not always watching you (despite the efforts of many to cover the Kinect with tea towels).

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So why are you saying it is?

Common sense. Think about it. The Xbox One responds to voice commands–specifically, I’m referring to the “Xbox, on” command. When powered off, the XBox will power on when this command is spoken. This is done through a rather revolutionary concept known as speech recognition.

Speech recognition is technology that enables a system to recognize what is being said. Much like with Siri or Swype’s Dragon (for Android users), this technology takes the language you vocally emit and translates it into a command or message for the system.

Okay. So what?

Speech recognition only works when the system can receive it. If XBox One was truly “not always on,” then the command to turn it on wouldn’t work. It would require a physical touch; like a button or switch.

Maybe this is a little to conspiracy-theorist for some of you, but if ‘XBox on’ is a trigger command, what else is the system listening for? For example, what does it do when someone in the room mentions guns, violence, or terrorism?

But… but…!

There’s no but. The XBox One, in technical terms, is always listening. It has to be in order to know when you want to use it.

Whether or not the Kinect ties into this is debatable, but the fact of the matter is that XBox uses both speech and voice recognition (voice recognition detects who is speaking, whereas speech recognizes what is being said). This means that not only is the XBox listening to what you say, but it can tie your voice to a user identity. Which Microsoft can ultimately tie back to you.

Think Before You Buy

This may not dissuade anyone from actually buying an XBox One, but I sincerely hope it at least stimulates your brain into thinking about what “always listening” actually means–and hopefully you won’t blindly believe Microsoft, especially given their recent debacle with the NSA and its China-esque practices.

There is a setting in the system to turn off sensors and voice commands, and even data collection. However, a “setting” in the UI doesn’t mean anything to me. Unless Microsoft announces a physical power button for the entire system, I won’t be touching the console with a ten foot pole.


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Katy Hollingsworth
whale biologist.