March 7, 2021

Microsoft will remove user names from ‘Productivity Score’ feature after privacy backlash

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Microsoft says it will make changes in its new Productivity Score feature, including removing the ability for companies to see data about individual users, to address concerns from privacy experts that the tech giant had effectively rolled out a new tool for snooping on workers.

“Going forward, the communications, meetings, content collaboration, teamwork, and mobility measures in Productivity Score will only aggregate data at the organization level — providing a clear measure of organization-level adoption of key features,” wrote Jared Spataro, Microsoft 365 corporate vice president, in a post this morning. “No one in the organization will be able to use Productivity Score to access data about how an individual user is using apps and services in Microsoft 365.”

The company rolled out its new “Productivity Score” feature as part of Microsoft 365 in late October. It gives companies data to understand how workers are using and adopting different forms of technology. It made headlines over the past week as reports surfaced that the tool lets managers see individual user data by default.

As originally rolled out, Productivity Score turned Microsoft 365 into a “full-fledged workplace surveillance tool,” wrote Wolfie Christl of the independent Cracked Labs digital research institute in Vienna, Austria. “Employers / managers can analyze employee activities at the individual level (!), For example, the number of days an employee has been sending emails, using the chat, using ‘mentions’ in emails etc.”

The initial version of the Productivity Score tool allowed companies to see individual user data. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Spataro wrote this morning, “We appreciate the feedback we’ve heard over the last few days and are moving quickly to respond by removing user names entirely from the product. This change will ensure that Productivity Score can’t be used to monitor individual employees. ”

In addition, Microsoft now says it will update the privacy disclosures in Productivity Score and change the user interface to make it clearer that it was designed to assess overall organizational productivity.

“Over the last few days, we’ve realized that there was some confusion about the capabilities of the product,” Spataro wrote. “Productivity Score produces a score for the organization and was never designed to score individual users.”

Recent patent filings show that Microsoft has been exploring additional ideas to monitor workers in the interest of organizational productivity. One filing describes a “meeting insight computing system” that would generate a quality score for a meeting using data such as body language, facial expressions, room temperature, time of day, and number of people in the meeting.

The company hasn’t commented on the patent filings, and there’s no indication the concept will be rolled out as a product.

Microsoft has an AI ethics office and a companywide committee that aims to ensure its products adhere to its principles of responsible AI, including transparency and privacy.