Microsoft 365 Removes Per-User Data in Productivity Monitoring Tool

Interior Of Busy Modern Open Plan Office - Microsoft 365 Productivity Score

Following a backlash from users and privacy advocates, Microsoft announced that they will remove per-user productivity monitoring and modify the user interface of Microsoft Productivity Score. This tool was built to help organizations measure and manage the adoption of Microsoft 365.

User Privacy at Stake

“We’ve heard the feedback, and today we’re responding by making changes to the product to further bolster privacy for customers”, Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, announced yesterday in a blog post. He outlined the changes Microsoft is making to protect individual privacy, while still giving organizations data-driven insights.

Users and privacy advocates feared that managers would misuse Productivity Score. They could, for example, measure and track the productivity of specific employees, rather than the organization as a whole. This is because the monitoring tool allowed granular per-user insight. The tool was able to tell, for example, that Bryce was last active 2 days ago. Or that Dawn had sent very few emails, that Amber had saved the most documents in OneDrive, that Charlie had attended the most meetings, and Doyle none.

Microsoft Productivity Score was officially launched earlier this year. The tool started receiving more and more criticism when data privacy researcher Wolfie Christl pointed out some of its creepier capabilities. A Microsoft promotional video on YouTube and an earlier Microsoft tech community blog post showed some of the metrics that could be collected on an individual level. The latter could be switched off by an administrator, but it was nonetheless potentially available.

Data-Driven Insights

“At Microsoft, we believe that data-driven insights are crucial to empowering people and organizations to achieve more”, said Microsoft. “The global pandemic has brought new challenges and stresses to employees, and there’s a clear opportunity for technology to help. But the adoption of new tools and capabilities often requires change management.”

In essence, Productivity Score is designed to help administrators measure and manage the adoption of technology, so people can get more out of Microsoft 365. The tool gathers end-to-end data, which is made visible in one transparent dashboard. This dashboard provides insights via a set of categories. These categories also show peer benchmarks . In addition, the tool provides suggestions as to how organizations can help people be more productive.

As part of their “privacy commitment”, Microsoft has now made a couple of changes to Productivity Score. Firstly, they removed end-user names from the product entirely. “Going forward, the communications, meetings, content collaboration, teamwork, and mobility measures in Productivity Score will only aggregate data at the organization level.” Secondly, Microsoft changed the user interface. This is to make it clearer that the tool is only measuring adoption of technology at an organizational level.

Top of The Iceberg

As Wolfie Christl correctly pointed out, it’s important to understand that Productivity Score is “just the tip of the iceberg”. As the trends and scores in the dashboard are very detailed, they can only be based on individual data. Moreover, the fact that the user-based metrics were turned on by default could have posed GDPR issues. And as The Register correctly argued, APIs do exist that can pull all kinds of data out of a Microsoft graph.

Even at the time of its launch, Microsoft must have known that its new tool was rather controversial. “Let me be clear: Productivity Score is not a work monitoring tool”, wrote Jared Spataro back in October. “It’s about discovering new ways of working, providing your people with great collaboration and technology experiences.”

His reaction now is a little different: “We always strive to get the balance right, but if and when we miss, we will listen carefully and make appropriate adjustments.” Microsoft said the retention of data at an end-user level was only meant to help IT personnel diagnose specific technical problems. Or to identify people having trouble with Microsoft applications. Privacy advocates, however, don’t buy this explanation.

Companies Use Monitoring Tools More Frequently

The fact that more people work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic has certainly highlighted certain issues around workplace surveillance. A Gartner report published in June revealed that 16% of employers now use technologies more frequently to monitor employees.

“While some companies track productivity, others monitor employee engagement and well-being to better understand employee experience.” Methods used are, for example, virtual clocking in and out or tracking work computer usage. Some companies also monitor employee emails or internal communications and chat.

According to Market Research Future, the global employee monitoring solution market is expected to nearly double between 2020 and 2023. If it does, that would mean it would grow into a whopping $3.84 billion market. However, “concerns regarding employee privacy are expected to restrain market growth during the forecast period”, the report admits.

IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.