Microsoft 365's Productivity Score: It's a full-blown workplace surveillance tool, says critic

Is Microsoft's Productivity Score a worker surveillance tool or just a way of helping IT understand user engagement?

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Microsoft has come under censure from a privacy advocate who reckons its Microsoft 365 Productivity Score feature is a "full-fledged workplace surveillance tool". 

The issue was raised by Wolfie Christl, a researcher with Austria-based digital rights non-profit Cracked Labs. 

Microsoft announced the feature in October as a tool to help organizations speed up digital transformation projects during the pandemic, which has required more people to work remotely and involved major changes in how technology is used. 

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As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in April, "We've seen two years' worth of digital transformation in two months" due to remote working. So Microsoft released the Productivity Score feature in preview this May. The Register noted at the time that the idea of analyzing how users are working with Microsoft's software, such as Outlook and Teams sounds a little creepy.    

Microsoft's feature might not be quite as creepy as dedicated employee surveillance software, which has become more popular during the pandemic and offers far more invasive features like keystroke counters and always-on webcams for employees using company computers. 

Nonetheless, proper employee surveillance software and Microsoft's Productivity Score have the same goal: monitoring a worker's productivity at a time when many people are working from home.  

As Christl noted in a tweet this week, major tech companies haven't been involved in remote worker surveillance, but he accused Microsoft of doing that through the Productivity Score feature in its Microsoft 365 bundle. 

"Esoteric metrics based on analyzing extensive data about employee activities has been mostly the domain of fringe software vendors. Now it's built into MS 365," wrote Christl

Microsoft explains in its documents that the score offers "metrics to help you see how people are using Microsoft 365 products to collaborate, communicate, and work across platforms" and to measure how people collaborate on content using Microsoft 365 products, such as Excel, Word, and Teams.

On one hand, it lets companies know how their digital transformation is going with employees. But as Christl points out, it gives managers a view of how many days an individual employee has sent emails, used chat and Teams channels, posted to Yammer and so on. 

Microsoft was aware that its Productivity Score could be construed as a worker surveillance platform. In a blogpost last month announcing the feature's general availability, Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, stressed that Productivity Score is "not a work monitoring tool".   

"Let me be clear: Productivity Score is about discovering new ways of working, providing your people with great collaboration and technology experiences," wrote Spataro. 

"It focuses on actionable insights about the ways in which people and teams are using the tools so you can make improvements or provide training to further your digital transformation."

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In response to Christl's criticism, Microsoft issued the following statement to The Guardian: "Productivity score is an opt-in experience that gives IT administrators insights about technology and infrastructure usage. Insights are intended to help organizations make the most of their technology investments by addressing common pain points like long boot times, inefficient document collaboration, or poor network connectivity. 

"Insights are shown in aggregate over a 28-day period and are provided at the user level so that an IT admin can provide technical support and guidance."

It may be an opt-in for admins, but as Christl points out, the feature by default allows for the system to show admins data on individuals, but gives them the option to not view usage data at an individual level. 

"This normalizes extensive workplace surveillance in a way not seen before," he wrote. 

"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."