SpinVox: What to do if you're concerned about your privacy

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spinvox_logo1Having witnessed the extent to which humans are involved in transcribing messages for SpinVox, I have become concerned about the privacy of my data and personal communications. Although I’ve now cancelled my SpinVox subscription, I know (because CIO Rob Wheatley told me) that SpinVox, like Google, keeps data – which in SpinVox’s case means recordings of your messages – “for as long as possible”. Based on a quick search of my inbox, I reckon SpinVox are holding recordings of about 250 messages that were left for me between April and July of this year.

But that’s not really the problem. After all, Google knows a lot more about me than that and I’m sure my ISP and the government do too. My concern is that I believe the majority of my messages were listened to by a person I don’t know in another country. That’s the point at which SpinVox may be falling foul of UK and European data regulations, and it’s the weak link in the privacy chain.

Under the Data Protection Act, the Information Commissioner’s Office must be informed of any company that processes personal information. It must also be informed if that information is transferred outside of the EEA.

According to the Guardian, although SpinVox has been through the notification process, the ICO is currently investigating whether the company’s entry on the data protection register “is both accurate and complete, especially with regards to the transfer of personal data outside the EEA”. CEO Christina Domecq insists that it is. James Whatley, writing on SpinVox’s official blog, also denied that SpinVox is in breach of data protection legislation. But it isn’t really for them to decide: that’s the ICO’s job.

Domecq claims that “the vast majority” of calls are “fully automated”. Based on what I saw at SpinVox’s HQ in Buckinghamshire earlier this month, I do not believe that to be true, especially in the case of British English, which is – by their own admission – one of the SpinVox system’s worst-performing languages.

If it’s true that the majority of messages are listened to by humans, and also that SpinVox’s customer base is expanding rapidly, that would explain why the quality of transcriptions appears to have deteriorated dramatically. And that may be why this story is coming out now, points out the Register‘s Andrew Orlowski.

According to a well-placed source of mine, no one has submitted a complaint to the ICO yet. In partial consequence, so far the ICO has been cautious about wading in to the SpinVox affair. But I am troubled by the implications of my personal and business communications being routinely listened in on by strangers. I’ve looked through a few of SpinVox’s transcriptions and some of my messages contain information that is extremely personal. Others contain professionally sensitive information.

So I’ve decided to make a complaint to the ICO. I want the Office to accelerate their investigation into whether SpinVox is being honest enough with its customers about the proportion of messages that are read by humans – and also about how much of those messages are seen by call centre staff. Although SpinVox has claimed that staff never see an entire message, that is not what I saw at their offices.

If you want to make a complaint too, you’ll need to visit the ICO’s website and complete  the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations Complaint form. It takes about ten minutes.

You should also write directly to SpinVox’s Data Protection Controller (I’m guessing that’s CIO Rob Wheatley – I’ll ask SpinVox to confirm and update here when they get back to me). You’ll need to send SpinVox a cheque for £10, but they’re then obliged by law to provide you with all the information they hold on you, and they have to do that within 40 days.

Send your cheque and request to:
The Data Protection Controller
SpinVox Ltd.
Wethered House
Pound Lane
Buckinghamshire SL7 2AF
U. K.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, and need to catch up on the SpinVox saga, Rick Wray’s story in yesterday’s Observer was a good summary of everything that the lawyers have allowed out so far, including a mention of the six-page dossier distributed to shareholders recently, alleging financial impropriety at the company.

As we revealed in July, SpinVox recently accepted a £15m cash injection from existing investors (we’re not sure which one(s)). The fresh investment prompted speculation that SpinVox is burning through cash very quickly, and reignited suspicion that rather than being a scaleable, fixed-cost business, as Domecq has always claimed, SpinVox is actually a variable-cost business of questionable scaleability (thanks to large-scale employment of human operators).

There have been numerous stories about staff and suppliers not being paid, or not being paid on time, in the past few weeks. Associated Networks, for example, has shut SpinVox out of two data centres (meaning that if something goes wrong, SpinVox will be unable to go in and fix it), and has been threatening to turn the power off completely. According to Associated Networks’ chairman and CTO Richard Sierakowski, SpinVox currently owes the company around £100,000.

SpinVox’s reaction to the scandals so far has been to claim it is the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by disgruntled former employees, and to employ PR and lawyers to stamp on the “leaks”.

Much of this paints the picture of a company in trouble. Which is why it is now a pressing matter to safeguard my data before anything else happens.

  • Mike

    Openly going up against a corrupt, $multi-million company…? Hope this won’t be your last post Milo!

    • http://uk.techcrunch.com/author/milo-yiannopoulos/ Milo Yiannopoulos

      I’m not “going up against” anyone. I am concerned about the privacy of my data and I’ve seen/heard nothing from SpinVox to allay those fears.

      So I’ve decided to ask the ICO to look into the matter with greater urgency than they are currently doing, and letting other people know how to register their concerns, should they choose to. That’s all.

      • Mike

        Just a joke, just a joke.

        I personally think your concerns are very well founded.

      • Stanipolis

        If you are concerned so much about privacy, you should wear a tin foil cap and become one of those Tor and Yauba using privacy fanatics.

        There is no privacy online, get over it.

      • noooobsssss

        Stop whining you are like a little baby.

        If you don’t like it don’t use it…. stupid……
        Gosh wtf… you are such a pussy…

        I wouldn’t be surprised if they fire your ass…

      • http://uk.techcrunch.com/author/milo-yiannopoulos/ Milo Yiannopoulos

        Is that you, Loren?

  • http://WWW.voxalot.com jonathan Present

    The heirs to a liquor company and Royal Doulton China get 100 Million to run a company. Both with very thin experience. Now it appears the got another 30 million or so. No doubt, the investors will get to the bottom of this in due time…

  • http://plentyways.com/blog/ Brendan

    Are we sure that google voice doesn’t do the same thing? Not that I would expect google to do such a thing, nor that I would suspect it from the quality of the transcriptions :) But it would be good to be sure…

  • phill

    Keep an eye on this new multi-media search engine launching soon.Heard about it and it looks promising.

    It will be connected to all mobile networks worldwide(source of revenue) and partnering up with the biggest brands known to mankind,interms of revenue this will be the biggest on the net.Can’t wait to see how this turns out.See demo site below:


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tim_ODonoghue/722987326 Tim O'Donoghue

    I see two privacy issues, separate but related, where SpinVox is concerned.

    The first is a compliance issue (Data Protection Act, ICO, etc) as per above. And clearly, for any company to be operating in a non-compliant manner, is – or should be – an area of concern.

    The second is a personal privacy issue, separate from a compliance issue. Depending on the content of those messages and each individual’s privacy preferences (e.g. do I care some some random person is likely listening to my voicemails), this may or may not be a problem. For me, and for many others, I suspect it would be a problem (with respect to personal voicemail at least, which is SpinVox’s main application).

    To say, as SpinVox does, that only fragments are listened to by humans, is – I suspect – not true. As anyone who has worked in speech recognition and natural language processing will know, having access to the wider context in which some utterance was made is key to correctly understanding/converting that message (be that with technology or people). As a result, I suspect that most messages will be interacted with by SpinVox’s “call center” staff in some way. What is the probability that a N word message will be correctly and automatically transcribed (with a reasonable degree of confidence) from end-to-end without any human intervention? SpinVox have never stated this percentage (and probably for – in their minds – good reason).

    There are of course other application areas where this personal privacy aspect is less of an issue. E.g. some people use SpinVox as a “voice front-end” to twitter. Given this is a broadcast application where the intent is to tell the world (or a subset there of) your message, you are less likely to be concerned that some random person in an offshore call centre is listening to your message and transcribing it (or at least significantly assisting in that process). You never know, that person may also be on twitter and is actually just hearing your message before the rest of twitter read it. However, there is no revenue stream (as yet, that I can see,) associated with these non-voicemail applications for SpinVox; all of their revenue comes from the telco deals for voicemail transcription, and that is where the largest personal privacy issue is.

  • John

    You are quite right to request your personal data. SpinVox is not just gathering it in audio form to constantly improve the speech recognition, but I would lay money on them doing so in textual form for advertising and targeted marketing.

    Another thing to think about is that its very likely that it has also been heard by more than just one person – where do you think there training messages come from? I am betting they just use live messages in some way – how else could you generate realistic training data for 3000+ transcription agents (its probably 10,000+ given the churn in those call center companies – learn to type in the 3rd world and you are on the way to a better job).

    The outright lies on their blog about only partial messages going to agents only makes me more concerned about what other ‘truths’ they are telling us.

  • Brett (@brettvallis)

    Not directly related to the issue you discuss, but perhaps of broader significance: if SpinVox/Google is storing/analysing/transferring your voice messages they in effect have a voice-print of you. Depending on the quality these can be quite accurate and could be used in the future with or without your consent.

  • http://abmw.wordpress.com Alan Wilensky

    It’s not how many people listen to the traffic, but how tall they are, and what do they weigh?

  • Connor Sweetman

    Wonderful article with a point of view to protect the public against the mis-use of their private information! I applaud you!

    I wish to encourage any SpinVox client in an EU Country to contact the link you supplied and to demand an investigation.

    If SpinVox is hoarding data for any purpose longer than 48 hours it should be ordered destroyed. If they use people’s voice recordings to “train D2” then they should be paying those people for the use of their voice. And if they can’t use the voice messages to train D2 within 48 hours, well that is just too bad for them.

    Imagine what it would cost them to get even tens of thousands of people with different dialects, accents, versions of different languages to speak for them to *TRAIN D2*?

    Right now they are getting it for free and in many cases charging for it! Great Trick!


  • kan

    If you are worried about your data privacy, just use a secure USB drive.that gives you the full solution. If you want to backup and encrypt your files you should also think of the consequences of others finding the external flash drive.

    • jamie

      great thanks!
      where do i plug it in?

      • anon

        in your phone, of course ;-)

  • Al

    Who’s privacy? Who owns the rights to the message content? The person who recorded the message TO you, or you as the recipient?

    In most contexts, is seems to me, it is the creator of the content who owns the rights to it.

    • Connor Sweetman

      Well, I do think it is the person who receives it. Just like e-mail, it is the person who receives it to determine whether it should be deleted, saved, forwarded, made public, etc.

      If I sent you an e-mail and you made it public, that is your right, isn’t it? If I send you a voice mail and you decide to record it and share it with your friends, press, who-ever. . ..that is your right.

      If I gave you an autograph from Winston Churchill, you own it and can do what you want with it.

      So in this situation, it is the person who is the receiver of the voice mail who owns it. Not the sender, not the intermediary. .. . the recipient.

  • CE

    I’m not a journalist, but I thought that journalism ethics are all about reporting the news and not making the news.

    I’m all for someone demonstrating that the “Emperor has no clothes” in relation to Spinvox, but I don’t believe that it is a journalist who should take it upon himself to make complaints to the ICO.

    Milo: wouldn’t it have been easier to get someone from #lubewrestling to file a complaint? :-)

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    […] asked them about Spinvox. I was interested in their answer, because the recent controversy surrounding the company appears to be gradually affecting the way the mainstream media views, as they put it, […]

  • http://www.newsjacker.co.uk/media/spinvox-why-its-extinction-wouldn%e2%80%99t-matter-2/ SpinVox: Why its extinction wouldn’t matter 

    […] asked them about SpinVox. I was interested in their answers, because the recent controversy surrounding the company appears to be gradually affecting the way the mainstream media views, as they put it, […]

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    […] asked them about SpinVox. I was interested in their answers, because the recent controversy surrounding the company appears to be gradually affecting the way the mainstream media views, as they put it, […]

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