Privacy Concerns: New Technology to Grade Meetings Through Surveillance of Attendees
HOW IT WORKS
Using sensors, cameras, and software algorithms, Microsoft’s “Meeting Insight Computing System” (MICS) will collect data on each meeting participant’s body language, expressions, and participation level. MICS will also track how much time attendees spend on activities that are not meeting-related, such as texting or reading email. For remote meeting participants, MICS factors in whether or not they activate their cameras. The system will also take environmental factors into consideration, including the temperature and level of noise in a meeting room. Meeting time is also considered. A hot meeting room, a room with a distracting level of noise, or a meeting running into lunch hour could affect the attendees’ levels of participation.
THE SYSTEM’S STATED PURPOSE ACCORDING TO MICROSOFT’S PATENT FILING
Statements in the application filed by Microsoft with the U. S. Patent Office, available for review at patents.google.com/patent/US10735211B2/en?oq=10735211, provide detailed information about the type of data MICS collects and how MICS uses the information to evaluate the effectiveness of meetings. The application identifies shortcomings of traditional meeting scheduling tools that do not provide any input to the organizer as to whether a meeting is likely to be productive.
Microsoft’s patent application does not provide details regarding the protection of potentially sensitive data that MICS may collect, but the fact that this is not part of the patent application does not mean that they have not considered the issue. The application simply focuses on how MICS will increase the effectiveness of meetings, not on potential issues associated with personal privacy.
THE ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST
Some will assert that employees who do not like being observed and evaluated by an application like MICS can simply quit and take a job elsewhere. After all, aside from evaluating the attendees’ level of interest and participation, how else could technology be used to measure the effectiveness of a meeting?
Others, however, may be concerned that the level of surveillance capabilities to be offered by MICS is excessive and that this is a slippery slope. Should its use become common in the workplace, the negative impact could be significant. An argument can be made that, because each person is different, allowing Microsoft to establish a single set of parameters by which to evaluate all meeting attendees is not appropriate. If, for example, a 25-year-old and a 60-year-old attend a meeting, chances are good that the former will check messages on his or her phone much more often than the latter, potentially indicating that the 25-year-old is distracted and not participating. Will this later be used against the younger employee? What if the younger employee was already familiar with the material being presented and doesn’t necessarily need to pay close attention? Are the algorithms used by MICS sophisticated enough to take these factors into consideration?
Despite Microsoft’s assertions in the patent application that the purpose of MICS is to evaluate meetings, not employees, concern over how the employee data could be used is to be expected. Will the information collected be considered in performance evaluations? Could repeated “low participation scores” form the basis for disciplinary actions? If so, are the MICS algorithms “intelligent” enough to take into consideration the natural differences between individuals or is everyone measured based on the same set of parameters created by Microsoft developers?
Technology impacts virtually all aspects of daily life, with data being continuously collected, shared, sold, and stolen. When systems like MICS emerge, they naturally evoke renewed concerns about the erosion of personal privacy and how much data collection is too much.
NOTE: This article includes only a brief summary of the information in Microsoft’s patent application regarding the data MICS would collect and how the information would be evaluated. Readers interested in learning more are encouraged to review the full text of the application, publicly available online.