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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

The two faces of Microsoft's biometric patent.

24 January, 2008
A potential Microsoft product that is unlikely to hit the shelves for at least another 18 months is already causing controversy over employee privacy protection.
Microsoft filed a patent in January for a product which can detect human emotions and physical responses when sat in front of the computer. The purpose of the product is to provide assistance to computer users who are having trouble performing certain tasks. I would have thought there were easier ways of doing this than measuring skin temperature, reacting to grimaces and feeling for an increased pulse but the world of human machine interfaces can be a strange place.

Regardless of this seemingly benign intent, the potential for misuse of such a system can easily be imagined. These excursions of the imagination have led to several reports of office spy systems and the implications of it.

Biometric interfaces to computers have so far been limited to access control, eliminating the need for passwords and providing secure logging on facilities using facial recognition with a web-cam or fingerprint authentication using a mouse or keyboard mounted fingerprint reader. However, this is the first case I'm aware of where the biometric interface is dynamic with the computer responding to changes in input.

Such polling interface software already exists in some cases to detect sleep signs in pilots and drivers for example, but in this case the results could be used to monitor attention levels, user activity, stress, anger and other emotions which the user may not wish to be stored for posterity.

Glovers solicitors, a UK based law firm specialising in employment law, stated that to avoid subsequent tribunals, employers installing such a system would have to make their employees aware that they could be monitored in this way and then prove they have a genuine business need to perform such monitoring tasks.

As for its intended use as a pro-active help system, anyone who's had the little paperclip pop up with "It looks like you're writing a letter" will know exactly how welcome a similar message would be that reads "It looks like you're sweating profusely, would you like some help?"
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