I Spy With My Little Eye: Microsoft files patent for monitoring technology

December 19, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Multinational tech giant Microsoft has filed a patent for a system set to monitor body language and facial expressions of employees during meetings. The system will deliver scores depending on the quality of meetings based on these factors. 

What does this mean?

A patent is an intellectual property right, referring to a limited monopoly granted in exchange for the disclosure of technical information. The monopoly simply refers to the duration of the right held under the patent which can vary but is usually 20 years in the UK. The disclosure of technical information indicates the subject matter of the patent being made available to the public. 

Microsoft’s new technology is aimed at making business meetings more efficient. In essence, it is a set of sensors which can record who attends meetings, the body language and facial expressions of those in attendance, how much time individuals spend contributing to meetings. It can even recognise speech patterns that are synonymous with boredom and tiredness. The monitoring can go as far as tracking employees’ mobile phone use during meetings and the types of tasks that they are engaging in.

The latest offering could be seen as an extension to Productivity Score, a tool introduced by Microsoft last year which has given managers the capacity to track individual employees’ use of the Microsoft Office 365 software.

What's the big picture effect?

This story highlights two issues in particular.  Firstly, the growing influence of technology and AI to facilitate innovation in business, and secondly the potential start of a journey to change the way that employees add value to their workplaces.

Perhaps most alarmingly, technologies along these lines could soon become commonplace in many different types of workplace. While Microsoft is using the product among its own employees at present, the company may expand its offerings to other companies and develop new products for specific types of business and industry. This is not unchartered territory for Microsoft, who not only have created computer software packages but also expanded into laptops and produced digital communication platform, Microsoft Teams, which has risen to greater prominence as a result of the pandemic. 

Data protection and security concerns about the product have also been flagged up. These concerns are due to the fact Microsoft already has a similar product called Productivity Score – an AI feature which can be used in conjunction with other Microsoft products and software. The headlines stemming from Productivity Score are primarily related to the ability of managers to see individual user data by default when the product is active. There are fears that the new system could extend the workplace surveillance feel of Productivity Score, because it also has scope for managers to analyse individual employees based on the data imputed into a Microsoft system (whether directly or indirectly), with reference to facial expressions and body language. 

Of course, Microsoft’s efforts continue to underline the growing prevalence of tech companies and what they are capable of. It certainly has the capacity to continue innovation by providing effective business solutions. But it is undoubtedly questionable whether Microsoft is aiding growth or if this is a step entirely in the wrong direction, and by extension, a step too far in an age of focus on data privacy and autonomous growth.

Report written by Evangeline Taylor 

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