By Michael Rau
January 28, 2008
OK I have to say I'm sorry because I normally don't like writing two scary columns in a row. But I picked up this little nugget from curmudgeonly journalist Jack Cafferty, prompting me to dig a little deeper, and now motivating me to share it with you.
A patent application filed by our friends at Microsoft 18 months prior was published late in December. It describes a new system, referred to in the application as "Monitoring System 500," which for all intents and purposes, continually monitors and analyzes the physical and mental condition of workers. Patent lawyers say the patent could be granted within a year.
The system uses a combination of software and hardware to measure body temperature, heart rate, breathing, facial expressions and blood pressure, and then analyzes the data to determine if the subject is happy, sad, stressed out, truthful and any other condition potentially determined by psychometric measurement.
According to the patent application, "The system can also automatically detect frustrations or stress in the user via physiological and environmental sensors and then offer or provide some assistance accordingly."
And according to Microsoft, the ability to monitor the worker doesn't stop at their desktop as it can be used with laptops and mobile phones and PDAs.
The system culls and analyzes the data in real-time, and then chooses a suitable action to take in response.
It also apparently uses "Clippy" the same animated pop-up assistant used in Office to offer suggestions if it perceives you're having a problem (I can see it now ... Clippy asks: "Are you feeling depressed today? Is that why you're work is so bad?")
The system can supposedly determine if you're being dishonest and alert a supervisor to your behavior, or whether your activities were "performed successfully but not in accordance with company or government policies."
It also records what you type and what Web sites you visit in order to analyze your level of productivity, as well as whether you're working or fiddling around. As the patent application puts it: "From this data, statistics related to performance, success rate, frequency of problem and the like, can be provided to users or can be employed to gauge a target user's success, performance or efficiency with respect to other users."
The patent application further explains: "Monitoring user activity can facilitate auditing how activities are performed to look for or isolate patterns of user problems, abuse, common errors incurred by users or to ensure company/government policies are complied with."
The language that Microsoft uses to explain the functions of this system make it sound like the greatest thing since sliced bread, but surely I'm not the only person to find this disturbing.
In their application, Microsoft states that Monitoring System 500 can "automatically detect frustration and stress" in the user, and "offer and provide assistance accordingly. The system would have an individual baseline psychological profile stored for each user based on their general health, weight, age and other factors. If the sensors used by the system detect an increased heart rate, or facial expressions it deems to be indicative of stress, anger or frustration, it could inform a manager that the worker needed help.
I'm not sure how comfortable anyone should be expecting a mathematical formula to determine one's health and wellbeing. Suppose you had a fight with your wife that morning and managed to bring your anger to work. Would the system then decide you were an unhappy or angry employee and recommend discipline or counseling?
Also, Microsoft doesn't specify the nature of the sensors used. Would an office worker be expected to hook themselves up to the system every day?
Many civil liberties advocates have expressed concerns. In a story about the new system in the London Times, a representative of a British labor union named Peter Skyte is quoted as saying: "This system takes the idea of monitoring people at work to a whole new level with a new level of invasiveness but in a very old-fashioned way because it monitors what is going on rather than the results."
Interestingly, the reason I pulled a quote from a UK paper is that this story has been virtually unreported in American Media.
Reading some of the comments posted online on Web sites of various foreign media about this story, there's quite a lot of polarization as to whether or not it's proper for employers to use such a system. Many contributors defended the rights of employers to do so, while others expressed the same concerns as I have.
So what do you think? How would you like to roll into your cubicle, hook yourself up to a bunch of monitoring devices and have every aspect of your work habits, your facial expressions and your physiological condition scrutinized to determine your worth as an employee?
As for me, it'll be a cold day in you-know-where before I would ever work for an employer with such a craven opinion of its work force.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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