Phot: Flip Franssen
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How Microsoft wants to profit from ‘Big Brother’ software

The COVID-19 crisis gave a huge boost to remote working. Microsoft is profiting handsomely from this development. The use of the company’s software provides Microsoft with enormous amounts of data and opens the door to productivity measurements that leave little room for privacy on the work floor.

By Pieter Beens, Sofyan El Bouchtili and Machteld van der Lecq / The Investigative Lab

At the start of their working week, users of Microsoft MyAnalytics receive a productivity update in their mailbox with the question: ‘Do you have enough uninterrupted time to do your work?’ Th is followed by an overview of the users’ working lives. Various charts show whether a balance between work and personal life was achieved and with whom they emailed the most in the past few days. Those who want more insights can click through to a corresponding dashboard.

An introductory video of MyAnalytics on Microsoft’s website shows what such a dashboard looks like. In the video, user ‘Megan Bowen’ spends 35 per cent of her time each week on communicating with others in meetings, through emails, instant messages and conversations. The other 65 per cent of her working week, she can focus on other tasks. According to these statistics, Megan had been in touch with 32 people and worked on 17 documents outside of working hours. ‘Food for thought,’ Microsoft believes.

Metadata

At first glance, the figures are not very impressive, but behind them lies a world of scoring mechanisms. The Investigative Lab delved into that world. It turns out that Microsoft collects far more data than users suspect and sees the ‘insights’ this provides as a potential source of income. The company presents these ‘insights’ as a tool for employees, but also wants to use them in new products such as Viva, which allows managers to monitor, assess and manage their employees.

The key word is ‘metadata’ – data about data. MyAnalytics and other applications do not look at the content of sent messages, but at what time they were sent and to whom. Based on the collected insights, Microsoft provides various tips to improve productivity: restrict meetings to 15 minutes at a time,or  check email on a set time only. This will, in time, make the weekly overview look even better.

Partner in human resources

Viva is the newest member of the Microsoft family. This ‘Employee Experience Platform’ is built on the capabilities of Teams and Microsoft 365 and aims to unify the employee experience across key areas: Engagement, Wellbeing, Learning and Knowledge. Microsoft says Viva should make it easier for ‘everyone to stay connected, access knowledge, learn on the job, and use privacy-protected insights’. By providing insight into their activities, Viva should help employees focus, conduct personal conversations and take regular breaks. In this way, Microsoft is increasingly presenting itself as a partner in human resources and is simultaneously working on a new business model.

In November 2020, the company filed a patent for a system that can assess and predict the quality of meetings on the basis of the body language and facial expressions of participants and the temperature of the room, among other things. Cameras, sensors and software determine whether participants are attentive in the meeting or are engaged in sending emails or text messages. A microphone can be used to determine whether someone is tired or bored. The patent application does not mention privacy. However, it does describe how the system assesses the efforts of employees and the consequences thereof. Based on the scores, the system advises who should or should not be invited for future meetings.

Responses AP and Microsoft

The Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens (AP), the Dutch authority charged with the protection of personal data, declined to make specific statements about Microsoft, but said that the assessment of employees should not be left to a computer. Vice-President Monique Verdier: “It is disconcerting that some work councils do not even know that they have to agree to the use of this software.”

In a response to this article, Microsoft Benelux said that data-driven insights are of ‘critical importance’ because they help people and organizations improve their performance. The company said it adheres to all applicable laws and regulations in the Netherlands, including the General Data Processing Regulation (GDPR). The company further stated it is only responsible for the ‘tools’ it provides. Clients are themselves responsible for  how they use the data collected by Microsoft’s software.

23 juni 2021

Read the full article on Vrij Nederland (in Dutch).

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