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Microsoft Office 365 Tracking Features Attacked as Surveillance

Michael Behr

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Microsoft Office 365

The new features provide employers with monthly reports on how workers use Office 365 in a move criticised by privacy activists.

The rollout of new productivity tracking features across Microsoft’s Office 365 program suite has drawn concerns from privacy activists over workplace surveillance.

The new features allow managers to monitor how and when employees utilise the programs, with workers assigned a score based on their productivity.

Announced in October and introduced this month, the tools offer management monthly searchable reports on each individual employee based on 73 metrics. These include the number of emails sent, number of files read or altered, and the number of Teams meetings attended.

These metrics can also show how often the worker has their camera on during meetings and how many people emails are sent to.

The move has drawn criticism from privacy campaigners, who are saying that the tools offers the means for employers to monitor their workers.

In comments on Linkedin, Label Ventures Co-Founder and Producer Nick Sherrard criticised the tools as an example of workplace surveillance.

“The Surveillance Score means a manager can check data on an individual’s email and chat use, then if they choose they can compare to benchmarks from other organisations (using this new data Microsoft is earning),” he said.

“This is management as surveillance as-a-service.”

Data privacy researcher at Cracked Labs Wolfie Christl warned that using the tools may break laws in some European jurisdictions.

“Showing data on individuals can be turned off, but it’s activated *by default*. This normalizes extensive workplace surveillance in a way not seen before. I don’t think employers can legally use it in most EU countries. I’m sure they cannot legally use it in Austria and Germany,” he wrote in a tweet.

 

He also pointed to potential privacy concerns over how Microsoft treats the data.

“In addition, Microsoft lures companies into sharing employee data with Microsoft in order to show them how their numbers compare to the numbers of other organizations. As a result, Microsoft gets access to a massive stack of employee data across many organizations.”

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Microsoft is marketing the new features as a way to enhance productivity, especially in the face of an accelerated digital transformation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Productivity Score leverages the depth and breadth of Microsoft 365 to give you visibility into how your organization works, insights to identify where you can make improvements, and actions you can take to update skills and systems so that everyone can do their best work,” Corporate Vice-President for Microsoft 365 Jared Spataro said in a blog post discussing the feature.

He noted that the new tools include ways to preserve worker privacy, including the 28-day aggregation of data and the option to anonymise the data. However, the ability to see individual reports on workers is enabled by default.

Worldwide, over a million companies use Microsoft’s Office 365, and has greater market share than its closest rival Google Workspace.

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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