Future Employee Monitoring Could Be Big Brother, but Check out the Bottom Line

Kachina Shaw

My staff concluded this week that Microsoft's patent application for a system that would allow managers to continuously monitor, through workplace software, employees' state of being -- that is, their respiration and heart rate, body temperature, facial movements and "brain signals" -- is, in a word, creepy. This conclusion isn't unusual. Nor is it surprising, coming from a team that has to work in a large, open work area with me in the mix. I'm not a screen peeper, but I am here with them all day, every day.


The fact is, I have to agree with their assessment. And as a manager, I'd hypothetically be in a position one day, should this patent be granted and the system built and marketed, to be the one monitoring the blips and beeps. Voyeuristically fun, perhaps. But I certainly would want to speak to a lawyer before being put in charge of determining that an employee needed medical attention based on the biological data (a scenario posited in the application).


I'm also an employee and I have a hard enough time controlling my facial expressions sometimes, a fact that my manager has already commented on. I can't imagine my blood pressure readings would be landing in the normal range if I had sensors attached to my hands all day and knew that my readings were marching across my manager's screen.


Because not only do we not want the data extracted from our bodies -- we also don't want the conclusions used against us. Will the monitoring system come with a board-certified physician to analyze our numbers, according to our age, gender, etc.?


It's all in how you look at it, though. Blogger Carl Weinschenk sees the potential monitoring as an opportunity -- for security professionals. He surmises that it could be used by savvy IT departments to scan for activity that could represent insider threats. Microsoft surely would market the system this way, as a logical extension of existing technology that collects data on keystrokes, searches and incoming or outgoing communications that violate company policy. Or maybe IT and other managers could easily be sold on the capability to keep track of whether telecommuters are actually at their computers all day. Only a small portion of the total monitoring system would be needed, but the whole system would be in place.


Voila: The next step in employee activity monitoring enters the workplace.


The U.S. Patent office reports that the application was filed 18 months ago, and patent lawyers say it could be granted within a year.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 24, 2008 4:44 AM Oladele Olawole Oladele Olawole  says:
One thought that came to mind when I first read the news item was the events at the Slave Farm eons ago. Are we in the present stage saying there has been an end to slavery or we are basically just deceiving ourselves. Are people employed to be productive or employed to ensure that they are well and able to do the Master's work? This is nothing but taking the workforce back into slavery. We pay your salary and we must make sure you are up to the task? When did employers turn physicians? If they are looking for better avenue to implement this technology, why not in automobile may be it can assist in reducing accidents? Why not in aerospace to monitor pilots and ensure that they are up to the task? Why not in industries where people are prone to accidents? Reply
Jan 25, 2008 8:22 AM Rob Rob  says:
Firstly, why? Why does such software even need to exist?Your article states no purpose such a system is being conceived in the first place. What are the Top Level System Requirements? (Who wants it, and for what?)Secondly, if the questions above remain unanswered or answered with too much ambiguity, this is definitely a violation of privacy. In such a case, call in the legal team. Let the lawyers wrangle over whether such a system should be allowed to exist and employees obligated to be subject to it.Thirdly, if it is non-invasive, it could be useful for issues that Oladele cited. Reply

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