Health

Microsoft to develop office spy software?


Remember when I talked about how your health issues could possibly get you fired? How about when I talked about how you shouldn't disclose any information about health problems in job interviews because it would sway opinion against you? Those blogs brought about a lot of discussion among TechRepublic members about the constitutionality of weighing health factors in an employee's work appraisal.

Well, hold on to your cough drops, because Microsoft has filed a patent application for a computer system that is capable of "remotely monitoring a worker's productivity, physical wellbeing and competence."

An article in the TimesOnline describes the proposed computer system as one that,

links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism. The system would allow managers to monitor employees' performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure.

If any alarming spikes become evident, the system would then let that person's manager know.

[I just had a mental picture of my cubicle erupting in loud sirens about 17 times a day, engulfed in a flashing blue light, while an oxygen mask drops down from a ceiling tile.]

OK, so my first question is Why? What's the purpose? I can understand the technology being needed for astronauts or test pilots or others whose physical composure is critical to their jobs. But for the regular Joe? Is it just a Tech Wizard for the manager who doesn't feel like doing another part of his job?

My second question is Then what happens? So let's say, one day I have a blood pressure spike, my respiration rate skyrockets, and the readout from my nerve conduction looks like the NYC skyline. Is a group of people going to come out and throw me in a plastic bubble? Will I get fired? Will my personnel folder reflect a series of conniption fits?

Of course, civil liberties groups are all over this idea, citing serious violations of privacy. If people have problems with random drug testing can you imagine what furor this will cause?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

49 comments
seanferd
seanferd

Who are they going to have monitor and maintain this, when so many IT departments are understaffed and not allowed to perform necessary functions as needed and with proper compensation? edit: sp

kdaugharty5
kdaugharty5

This software will hurt more than help, kiss your jobs good bye

s44j
s44j

If the company is going to monitor your BP and Heart Rate and your heart rates drops dangerously low, and you pass out and have a heart attack and they don't do anything when the manager is notified seems this would expose the company to serious liability for not preventing an adverse outcome.

Cerybro
Cerybro

Well I guess it???s a case to case basis. The categories to look at were mainly on both employees and the company. If the employee was hiding something fishy or doing illegal things, if the employee was really sick or not (but trying to make some excuses), checking employee productivity, competence for promotion (being fair and square not by politics promotion), or for some other use in company or for other agenda. Is it advantageous or disadvantageous? Or is it something to force the employee or put pressure psychologically to the employee to work while being monitored? Well if this would be the case the employee???s might have a nervous breakdown. Anyways, the decision would still come from the company to implement this kind of technology or not and for the employee to decide to stay or not. Let???s not jump to conclusion yet (I guess) because there???s more issue to arise from this topic. Especially regarding privacy???

mrAverage
mrAverage

WHAT A WASTE OF TIME!!!! 1- Managers never leave the "office space", all you see is the back of their balding heads.....hmmm with the proper software we don't need managers maybe this could be good. Employees are now not hindered by over-bearing bosses, all connection to the real world could soon be severed. THX-1138..etc. 2- An over-stressed workforce, slowly integrated into a smooth running collective. Cubicals become hexagons, feeding tubes and waste recycle, automated medical cloning, bio-engineering new workers...Please see your local beehive, too many movies to list, or communism. SOYLENT GREEN -- IS PEOPLE! Technology = Tools to improve life for people. People = Desire technology to improve life. Technology before people = DISASTER

mikifin
mikifin

I worked at the Evil Empire for awhile in the early days when few people took them seriously. I heard many bone head ideas like this during my brief stay. This and other really wacko stuff are still on their agenda but now they don't talk about them. Use Linux it's really better so is a Mac for that matter.

armstrongb
armstrongb

For this to work the laws regarding privacy of medical records would have to be changed. Imagine the debate in Congress, allowing an untrained person monitoring people's well being and making decisions based on what criteria? Why that's almost as stupid as letting insurance company clerks with no medical training determine whether a trained Doctor or Nurse Practitioner can exercise their professional judgment for treating their patient based on their examination of the patient. Oh wait, that's already happening....

DiscipleN2k
DiscipleN2k

...although I'll admit there's far more potential for bad. It's quite possible this could be used to determine when a formerly productive worker is approaching burn-out so they can have you take a break and spend some time with family/friends before you have a complete melt-down at work. Although I'm sure we can pretty safely assume that's not how most (if any) companies will use it. Most places will probably use it in such a way that they can push you as hard as they can for as long as they can and then fire you before you have a heart attack on the job.

peg.wanie
peg.wanie

As an IT manager, I have always managed my people according to whether they were producing or not. If they are performing to what I believe is a satisfactory level, they can read a comic book at 10am if it helps them concentrate better for the next 2 hours. Point being, we should manage professional people by outcomes not micromanage every minute of their activity.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

You will be assimilated. Resistence is futile. Your desires are irrelevant. Your freedom is irrelevant. Your rights are irrelevant. The ultimate for control freak managers. Of course they will sell this as a means to reduce health insurance premiums; but will neglect to tell everyone that they will be fired for failure to perform satisfactorily in company-sponsored health maintenance programs (which will be a small text requirement in the employment contract). Even worse scenario, I can really see this being used for everyone who telecommutes - this way they know how long you are present and working while out of office.

tom.curtin
tom.curtin

Well theres's this one guy in my office that keeps having real seizures and it would be nice to have an alarm go off so we could get to him before he spins around cuts open his head on a desk...

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

The only reason your company would buy this is to check that you are working all of the time, and not day-dreaming/surfing TR/polishing your nails. To quote the original article, the system will "...allow managers to monitor employees??? performance..." Obviously your blood pressure will be different when you are working to what it is when you are engaged in a "de-stressing activity". ;) - If your stress levels are low when working, they can increase your workload. If they are high, and your productivity low, you are "burned out", and no more use. - All this "for your health" is pie in the sky. What company ever cared if you dropped, as long as they know at exactly what time, so they could stop paying you.

rcugini
rcugini

This is a horrible idea. If your business actually tries to use it, call the ACLU. Monitoring blood pressure is not relevant to normal office work. Besides, what if you telecommute or travel? Medical data like this could easily be stolen by one's job provided insurance. This could lead to coverage problems.

mikifin
mikifin

Use your own computer and don't drink the company "KoolAid." I shifted to Linux etc. so that they couldn't look over my shoulder and learned to say: "I understand, Oh, that's OK, that will be fine etc. etc. while getting everything of importance in writing.

Larry the Security Guy
Larry the Security Guy

I can't wait for all the third party gadgets that will come out to trick the sensors.

nentech
nentech

CEOs managers etc If its not telling us they are stressed fire the lazy buggers You should always start at the top when cutting away the dead wood

RFink
RFink

Let's take bio-feedback courses so we can alter the readings for our entertainment.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

put the electric tape across the bridge of my nose and wrap myself in window screen, will they know I'm there? This is such a bad idea it's hard to take seriously. Unfortunatly we have to. Enough said or I'll start to rant. And ruin my lunch.

brudab
brudab

This sounds like its eliminating the humanity of the office worker. We're not machines that need sensors to see if we're overheating or if we need maintenance. Maintaining and increasing productivity should always remain a function of human relations i.e., management-employee interaction. This step looks like something out of The Matrix, where machines gain more and more control over us. What the machine says is right, and our lives become governed by a strict ruleset that's created by.... WHO?

Jaqui
Jaqui

with all the evidence that MS purposely designs their products to be non-secure-able just so that MS can spy on those using their software, why would it be a surprise that they are going even further into the spyware business?

keith.wiley
keith.wiley

While this is a technology application that could (and probably will be abused) there are a couple of things that people should keep in mind. First, there are the sensors. While they are "wireless" that means their connection to the pc or network, not their connection to you, the worker. It's not as if they can sneak this up on you, you'll have to cooperate to the extent of putting the sensor rig on so they can monitor you, so you'll know that they're monitoring. Secondly, this stuff won't be cheap. Not just the software, but the hardware required for this to work will be a bit pricey, at first. Of course, when you're dealing with an economy of scale the price on the hardware units will come down as it's more widely adopted, but that won't be right away and that will be a good news / bad news thing (bad news that more employers might be able to abuse the tech, good news for your insurance rates as the diagnostics costs for routine medical screening will go down). Thirdly, (and this is US centered, so I apologize to those elsewhere), but this information might reasonably be considered to fall under HIPAA guidelines and restrictions, which will probably complicate the process so that it will become unworkable except for the very large corporations and federal workforces. Can you imagine the lawsuits that would result if someone wardriving by copied everyones "health/medical" information at a large worksite? Finally, while it's easy to imagine all of the draconian and frankensteinian applications this technology could be put to, let me pose a few postivie benefits. Almost every bus and publicly owned vehicle is equipted with some sort of computer interface. A police officer steps up to write a traffic citation, he's shot by the driver for whatever reason, the cruiser "calls" 911 when the officer's vital signs react to being shot. Someone works in a remote cubicle or area of a workplace, one that no one ever goes back to if they can avoid it (wait, this sounds like my office). that person has a stroke, mild heart attack or some other adverse medical event and his pc calls 911 since it might be hours before anyone wanders back to where this person is sitting? Just food for thought

nwoodson
nwoodson

It doesn't really matter what we want or think is right. This is categorically out-of-bounds, but it appears that it will happen anyhow. The question, in this day and age of billion-dollar frauds and bankruptcies is....who's watching the watchers?

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I think they have gone too far. The question to me is will legislation be passed requiring companies to inform their employees that they have this in place?

Meesha
Meesha

Don't be fooled. Anything that MS gets it's hands into will surface eventually, with or without public scrutiny. This is a proven MS methodology. Do we want this intrusion into our personal space? Absolutely not. Will I or you have a choice? As employers are given more and more "rights" over your life this will all be academic. Also don't forget that much of the North American and indeed, global population, have a sheep mentality and is often the force majeur that dictates what we do. If their concern is their personal biometrics and MS or any firm can provide them a service it will be on a desktop, notebook, blackberry soon enough. I don't trust MS anything with my personal life - banking, health or otherwise. So why are they going this route. Conspiracy theories welcome.

Canuckster
Canuckster

Maybe they can then alert the cafeteria before your lunch break and the only employee discount you get will be on the Chef Salad sans dressing. After all, your bloodsugars appear to be high. It may be an interesting exercise in technical intrusion but it lacks anything remotely like a civilized approach to a fellow human being. Perhaps a progressive application for this monitoring would be for a sweatshop foreman to discipline people who slow down after 12 hours with no bathroom break rather than the random punishments that he inflicts now.

manoj
manoj

This appears to me as an absolute ridiculous idea. After all, like the author asked, THEN what is going to happen? Managers are going to rush to my cabin to evaluate my ?medical condition??? I cannot stand the idea of working in a cubicle which is not any less than a wireless ICU where your heartbeats or blood pressures and what not are monitored. Microsoft should have put their money into something more useful, at least in fixing Vista bugs.

mike.motes
mike.motes

Reality check....just because M$ is applying for a patent doesn't mean that it will come to fruition. Heck, one year later, Vi$ta has yet to become "mainstream", and Windoze 7 is on the horizon. The Blue Screen Of Death would take on new meaning if this concept ran on (hmmmm....let's see....) WINDOZE? P.S. I have tinkered with Linux, but I still use XP on all my machines.

Canuckster
Canuckster

If you haven't already, take a boo at an older book called The Goal. Although it deals with manufacturing and not IT, many of the ideas are transferrable. In it, one of the points the author makes is that, at the end of the day, you should not judge an employee's contribution to the success of the company/project as a whole based upon the fact that they are not constantly busy during their paid time at work. If you try to fill their time with less valuable work you can run the risk of their valued contributions being hurt and thus negatively impact the whole effort.

mmoran
mmoran

With this technology, welcome to the age of Nano-Management! I do have to ask, though... are we absolutely, 100% certain that this isn't a "leak" of someone's upcoming April 1 post?

ben@channells
ben@channells

http://www.kde-look.org/content/show.php?content=2382 Most manager don't give a F***, even if you were being asimulated by the Borg so long as you have done you weekly reports and time sheets. would MS Spy change your windows team to a more calming colour or play music dependant on you mood or make you a cup of tea or coffee. No changes are it would play DRM restricted music or video, Crash or Blue screen reboot lose your unsaved data, fail to reconnect to the domain or email. the recommend you to the HR department for redundancy preceeded by several management team building conferences. personally I think we should be allowed to shoot the sales bods as they enter the building, then go off to the un-used smoking room to play table footie, Pool, or Hit Man on the Game console ;-)

Tell It Like I See It
Tell It Like I See It

Oh, boy could there be a lot of hacks on this tech. The wireless signal is a problem. Modify you personal radio to be a low-level transmitter that happens to transmit on wireless connection frequencies. This could jam the wireless frequencies. If they can't receive the signal, they can't monitor you. Oh, yes -- just wait until someone hacks the network by piggybacking on the wireless signal for these monitors. That'd get this technology yanked REAL quick -- especially in companies that deal with finances and/or security. Perhaps even more critical -- just wait until someone spills their hot coffe on the sensors and nearly electrocutes themselves because this stuff shorted out. Will insurance cover the medical costs incurred from this injury? Will the company? Actually, depending on how this works, you may not even really need much technology to fool it. Want a faster heart rate? Try listening to some head-banging music, do your best to type along with the beat, and let your legs bounce in one place. Heart reate, internal temperature, blood pressure, movement -- all up to varying degrees. Must be working hard. Don't quite like head-banging music, substitute classical for a slightly more sedate, possibly more refined version (but still keep the typing, leg bouncing, etc.). If they use galvanic skin response, just spit on the area around the sensor (if you can get to it). Depending on sensor design, it might show up as you're sweating a lot. Maybe you just want a little spike to keep them from checking up on you. Just grab a push-pin and jab it someplace sensitive (but not TOO sensitive). Of course, this all assumes that they want to see more stressful responses from people. If the reverse is true, then you'd need different actions. But I think people can get the idea. Seriously, I don't think this technology could work nearly as well as the managers might hope. Think about it. What if you have someone who's a fidgeter? They'll constantly be bouncing their legs or arms or something. Does this mean their working? Not really. Does it mean they are out walking around? Not at all -- they could be bouncing their legs at their desk. Also, it doesn't take into account that some people have jobs where they are most productive by THINKING through a problem versus a help desk person who needs to run all over the place. Obviously the thinkers are more sedate than the help desk person who is going from cube-to-cube to fix things all day long. Does that mean that the help desk person is more productive than the thinker -- not at all. Overall, I don't think this technology could work nearly as well as the managers would like it to. Yes, this would provide them with more numbers to crunch and use to the manager's benefit (however that is). What it won't do is make an incompetent manager who can't look beyond numbers any more competent. And if the manager won't look beyond the numbers, there's no hope for their improvement. Unfortunately, there's no medical device that can measure a person's ability to look beyond numbers.

Canuckster
Canuckster

they won't be able to put your medical info, webcam images, etc. on YouTube after your tryst with the significant other on the bosses desk. But at least you'll know if someone's faking it.

evilkillerwhale
evilkillerwhale

sit in your car in your garage with the car running sometimes?

JohnWarfin
JohnWarfin

"First, there are the sensors. While they are "wireless" that means their connection to the pc or network, not their connection to you, the worker. It's not as if they can sneak this up on you, you'll have to cooperate to the extent of putting the sensor rig on so they can monitor you, so you'll know that they're monitoring. Secondly, this stuff won't be cheap." Sadly, I must disagree- we are already in the lab chair. The technology costs will immediately be ridiculously low, and at this moment could provide a rich dataset for anyone willing to collect and analyze it. I already use a keyboard and a mouse that have always been capable of monitoring my typing speed, number of typo's per unit time, the breadth of my lexicon (sorry ladies), patterns of repetitions, pauses when accessing rarely recalled items and even intervals of microtremor. I watch a video screen capable of strobing my visual system with provocative stimulating patterns (recall the Timex/Micro$oft DataWatch interface that blinks out data patterns from the screen in flashes). My varied responses to cleverly developed patterns would be embedded with information about my cognitive processing and underlying nervous system performance. Like it or not, I breathe and sweat off molecules that technology in $150 non-contact breathalyzers can analyze- even my breathing rate has clinical implications. I have a wrist watch with a 3mm sensor window that can track my pulse- that currently costs about $20 (and includes a stopwatch!). I have a USB memory key with an embedded fingerprint scanner; that is probably now worth about $40. Who knows- my PC and telephone microphones could already be providing spectral frequency analyses that reveal stress reactivity and static levels. My speaker volume settings reveal something about my hearing status. My timecard and login/out and task durations are embedded with information that can be extracted about my motivation level. It would be incredibly cheap to monitor my galvanic skin responses from a slightly redesigned mouse or keyboard. And all this data would be tied together in realtime, with the revealing conditions and droning repetitions provided by the work day. Basically- for anyone that cares to mine it that way, I am providing a fantastically rich set of repeated observations in the most naturalistic setting possible- daily life. Researchers (and especially marketing researchers) spend fortunes trying to get only snapshots from approximations of real world situations. The office-mined datasets from daily tasks will be extremely comparable to those assessed by neuropsychologists and other less savory types fascinated by polygraphs. Tie such data in with my personnel records, and boom- more and better data at lower cost than a room full of lab rats. The only encouraging thing about having Micro$oft hold a patent on measuring productivity these ways is that they seem to consider navigating through menues and buttons for minutes at a time to be productive. So, finally, their bloatware will do me a favor in return for the accumulated years its' stolen! Panic Last.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

Damn, I can't wait to hear that one ;) Let's do it for the good of the worker. If we can save just one (child, tree, whale, whatever) won't it be worth the small inconvience? After all it's not like work is a private setting or anything. Privacy is such an old fashioned, out of date concept anyway. Cops writing tickets would be helped by monitoring cubicles? Or is it because cop cars should be able to call 911 that we need to monitor cubicles?

nwoodson
nwoodson

As I sit here remoted into a Win2K machine waiting for software to run....I agree...in a limited sort of way. The Army has been working on remote sensor tech for some time...both for spyware and for troop safety. Noble effort...necessary effort. I still fail to see how the workplace will benefit by this type of intrusion. I work in a hospital where HIPAA is everything. You are correct that we can all imagine the applications of this tech...we (I hope) are sufficiently pragmatic to see that managers, accountants, actuaries, etc. are more than capable of turning this into a horrible mess that even the techies (the non-policy makers) won't be able to fix. I'm not looking forward to that at all.

seanferd
seanferd

Perfect for the pseudopsychoanalyzing manager. No longer will he entirely have to guess on his emotional read of an employee. " I can tell your angry and just barely controlling yourself..."

IT_Goddess
IT_Goddess

maybe they can make the screen different colours for different *spiking* situations...

Tell It Like I See It
Tell It Like I See It

Or, maybe Microsoft really is considering something like this and purposely leaked it at this time in order to test the reactions people would have to such technology. By leaking it now, they can claim an April 1 post leak if there's a big backlash. If not, then they continue on with the development as if nothing had ever happened. Or maybe they are thinking that some other company is close to something like this and they leaked this info accidentally on purpose to create FUD.

seanferd
seanferd

Is this another club were supposed to join?

seanferd
seanferd

there is no necessity of any sensors being placed on one's body at all. Depending on what is being monitored, sensors in a chair or keyboard, along with cameras sensitive to IR along with visible light can register quite a variety of data. -John Smallberries

santeewelding
santeewelding

Who better to watch the watchers than the keeper of the keys?

Bralin-23
Bralin-23

Working for someone like that, that'd just read as a normal register any time they're around. Of course, if they were log the results so they can tell the difference when they're away...

JohnWarfin
JohnWarfin

Is that an oscillation overthruster in my pocket, or am I just glad to see you?

seanferd
seanferd

That's Bigboot?! t?! t?!

JohnWarfin
JohnWarfin

John Smallberries- have John Yaya get the ship- it's time to go!