Microsoft has announced what it calls a more privacy-friendly version of its Productivity Score enterprise feature, following comments from security experts who condemned it as a “full-fledged workplace surveillance tool.”
The Microsoft 365 tool that tracked employee usage of applications like Outlook, Skype & Teams was widely condemned by privacy experts.
The Productivity Score feature, which was launched as part of the Microsoft 365 productivity suite on Oct. 29, aimed to provide enterprises with data about how employees were utilising technology.
The idea behind the feature is to provide employees with a “score” based on metrics collected from their usage of Microsoft 365 products. E.g., an employee who uses Microsoft Teams, Outlook, or Skype more might have a higher score.
However, following privacy concerns about the feature, the tech company announced on Tues. several changes to Productivity Score. “At Microsoft, we believe that data-driven insights are crucial to empowering people & organisations to achieve more,” Jared Spataro, Corporate VP for Microsoft 365, explained in a blog post Tues.
“We also believe that privacy is a human right, & we’re deeply committed to the privacy of every person who uses our products.”
The changes came after privacy advocates criticised the tool as an ‘overreach’ of data collection by enterprises & by Microsoft itself. David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of project management tool Basecamp called the tool “the most invasive work-place surveillance scheme yet to hit mainstream,” while technologist Wolfie Christl commented “this is so problematic at many levels.”
Christl pointed out that any evaluation of group “productivity” data represents a ‘worrying shift’ of power in data privacy from employees to organisations.
“Employers are increasingly exploiting metadata logged by software & devices for performance analytics & algorithmic control,” said Christl in a tweet last week. “Microsoft is providing the tools for it. Practices we know from software development (& factories & call centres) are expanded to all white-collar work.”
In response to these worries, Microsoft has made 2 linked changes to Productivity Score. 1st, the feature will remove user-names, & their associated actions – from the product, meaning that organisations will no longer be able to track individual activities over a 28-day period.
“Going forward, the communications, meetings, content collaboration, teamwork, and mobility measures in Productivity Score will only aggregate data at the organisation level—providing a clear measure of organisation-level adoption of key features,” observed Spataro.
“No-one in the organisation will be able to use Productivity Score to access data about how an individual user is using apps & services in Microsoft 365.”
A 2nd change will modify the user interface to make it clearer that Productivity Score is a measure of organisational adoption of technology & not individual user behaviour.
“Over the last few days, we’ve realised that there was some confusion about the capabilities of the product,” suggested Spataro. “Productivity Score produces a score for the organisation & was never designed to score individual users. We’ll make that clearer in the user interface & improve our privacy disclosures in the product to ensure that IT admins know exactly what we do & don’t track.”
Concerns around workplace surveillance of employees has increased after the coronavirus pandemic forced many organisations to go remote.
In June research, Gartner analysis revealed that 16% of employers were using technologies more frequently to monitor their employees through methods – such as virtual clocking in & out, tracking work computer usage, & monitoring employee emails or internal communications/chat.
Data Privacy Rights
Other emerging services & tools that increased in popularity during COVID-19 created concerns about employee data privacy rights – such as Sneek, a group web conference software that lets companies take screenshots of their employees every 5 minutes.
“Purveyors of a variety of new & repurposed surveillance technologies seek to help employers mitigate the risks of workplace COVID infections,” Katitza Rodriguez & Svea Windwehr, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), warned in September. “But many of these technologies pose severe threats to workers’ privacy & other fundamental rights. ”