Microsoft Wants to Be Your Big Brother

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2008-01-18 Print this article Print

It's not science-fiction. It's a real technology and it cannot be allowed to happen or privacy will vanish.

Today, I have a temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit, a headache, my blood pressure is 100 over 71, and my heart-heat is around 90 beats per minute. I have felt better. Now, if Microsoft's plan goes the way it wants, my Windows computer will soon be reporting all of that, and more, to my boss.

This isn't science fiction. This isn't a remake of George Orwell's "1984." This is the future, according to a recently filed Microsoft patent. Let's call the product that might come from this patent Windows You. It is, as you'll see, an apt name.

In Microsoft's vision of tomorrow's office, according to a report in the London Times, our computers will be constantly monitoring us with wireless sensors. There's nothing new about Big Brother software. Programs that measure how many keystrokes we make per minute are old hat. If you work in an office and think for one moment that your e-mail, instant messaging or Web-browsing habits are in some way secret, you're a fool.

But, in Microsoft's new world, Windows You will not only be measuring medical biometrics, it will also be monitoring your metabolism. Are you logy after a big lunch? Windows You will be letting your boss know. Overweight? Had a drink at lunch? Falling asleep at the keyboard? Gotcha, gotcha and gotcha.

There's more. Let's say you're upset, and you've got an angry look on your face, Windows You will be reporting on that too. Did you start feeling angry when you read the e-mail that your co-worker was promoted? Big brother Microsoft and your manager will know that too.

What? You say that's not why you were angry? Are you sure? Because Windows You will also be measuring your galvanic skin response. What do you get when you put galvanic skin measurements with blood pressure readings? You get a lie detector.

And you thought drug tests to get a job was a bad idea.

Microsoft's patent application suggests that all this information will only be used so that management will be better able to help you in your job. Right. If you believe that you'll also believe that you had to burn down the village to save it.

This is the most breathtaking business invasion of privacy that I have ever seen seriously suggested. With this system, nothing, and I mean nothing, about your life will remain private.

No, I'm not being over-dramatic. Take all the information about you that's already available from corporate communications monitoring, cross-reference it in a SQL Server database with the biometric information from Windows You, and a sufficiently nosy boss can tell how you feel about your husband or wife, about how well, or not, you're doing with quitting smoking, and, last but never least, how you feel about your job.

Never mind whether you're doing a good job. If the boss decides that your attitude is wrong -- "The machines don't lie," he or she will say -- and out on the street you'll go, where your next would-be employer might want to look at your Windows You records to see if you're healthy enough to do your office job.

Of course, if the government, under the Patriot Act of 2011, got this information, life as we know it, is over. "Tell me Mr. Bradbury, you seemed 'happy' on June 12th just after the news of the Amtrak terrorist bombing arrived on your desktop news feed. Do you really expect us to believe that it was because June had agreed to marry you the night before? What are you hiding?"

We like to talk about the long, slippery slope of losing rights, of losing our privacy. This technology isn't a slope. It's a sheer drop to the world of Big Brother. It cannot, it must not, be allowed to be used in any business.

I'm editor-at-large for Ziff Davis Enterprise. That's a fancy title that means I write about whatever topic strikes my fancy or needs written about across the Ziff Davis Enterprise family of publications. You'll find most of my stories in Linux-Watch, DesktopLinux and eWEEK. Prior to becoming a technology journalist, I worked at NASA and the Department of Defense on numerous major technological projects.

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