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

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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.