Microsoft rolled out its new “Productivity Score” feature this month, which lets bosses track how their employees use Microsoft’s suite of tools. If that sounds like an Orwellian nightmare in the making to you, you’re not alone — privacy experts are criticising the company for essentially gamifying workplace surveillance.
When Microsoft first announced the feature in October, the company billed it as a way to provide “insights that transform how work gets done” to employers. To do this, the tool gathers data on each employee’s behaviour across 73 metrics and presents a handy-dandy breakdown to their bosses at the end of each month, Forbes reports.
These metrics include how often workers turn their cameras on during virtual meetings, how frequently they send emails (and how many contain @ mentions), whether they regularly contribute to shared documents or group chats, and the number of days they used Microsoft’s tools such as Word, Excel, Skype, Outlook, or Teams in the last month, just to name a few. Microsoft lays out all the ways it monitors you through its office suite in the company’s own documentation, though admittedly you’ll have to go digging through about a dozen web pages to find them.
Microsoft 365’s corporate VP Jared Spataro specified in a blog post that the feature, which debuted to little fanfare on Nov. 17, is “not a work monitoring tool” and that Microsoft has incorporated several security measures to demonstrate its commitment to privacy. For example, every employee’s productivity score is aggregated over a 28-day period, and there are privacy controls available to anonymize that data or remove it completely.
Of course, what Spataro conveniently fails to mention is that only an administrator, aka your boss, can access those controls in the first place, which is zero comfort for any employee justifiably concerned about potential invasions of privacy. In a statement to Guardian, a Microsoft spokesperson echoed this pretense of choice, calling the feature “an opt-in experience” even though workers aren’t the ones who can decide whether to opt-in.
“Productivity score is an opt-in experience that gives IT administrators insights about technology and infrastructure usage,” the spokesperson said. “Insights are intended to help organisations make the most of their technology investments by addressing common pain points like long boot times, inefficient document collaboration, or poor network connectivity. Insights are shown in aggregate over a 28-day period and are provided at the user level so that an IT admin can provide technical support and guidance.”
Esoteric metrics based on analyzing extensive data about employee activities has been mostly the domain of fringe software vendors. Now it's built into MS 365.
A new feature to calculate 'productivity scores' turns Microsoft 365 into an full-fledged workplace surveillance tool: pic.twitter.com/FC3N6KkIR3
— Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl) November 24, 2020
Privacy experts are understandably pissed to see blatant workplace surveillance repackaged as a productivity optimisation tool, and one with a cutesy game-themed “score” design no less. David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of the office suite Basecamp, described the feature’s design as “morally bankrupt at its core” in a series of tweets this week.
“The word dystopian is not nearly strong enough to describe the fresh hellhole Microsoft just opened up,” he said. “Being under constant surveillance in the work place is psychological abuse. Having to worry about looking busy for the stats is the last thing we need to inflict on anyone right now.”
Data privacy researcher Wolfie Christl, who called the feature “problematic at many levels,” pointed out that while Microsoft offers employers the option to turn off employee monitoring, it’s enabled by default when they first boot up Microsoft 365. He added that Microsoft’s new tool may even be illegal in some European Union countries given the region’s strict regulations on how companies can access user data.
Heinemeier Hansson summed up just how unsettling Microsoft’s “Productivity Score” is in one of his tweets:
“One way to crystalize just how creepy this scheme is is by imagining a person with a stopwatch and a clipboard sitting behind you. Meticulously recording how long you spend on each task, compiling a dossier on everyone doing the same, then reporting the findings to management,” he said.
Workplace surveillance has become a particularly prevalent concern this year with the pandemic pushing more and more people to work from home. In June, the research firm Gartner found that 16% of employers were using monitoring tools more frequently to track their workers’ computer usage, internal communications, and engagement among other data. And with coronavirus cases continuing to climb to record heights in the U.S., experts expect the development and adoption of these tools to only ramp up further.