Microsoft has a patent pending on potentially hugely controversial software, which remotely monitors, big brother style, a worker’s productivity, physical wellbeing and competence.

According to the Times newspaper, a patent application was filed by Redmond for a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism.

The system would allow managers to monitor employees' performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure, said the Times, which claims to have seen the patent application. Unions said they fear that employees could be dismissed on the basis of a computer’s assessment of their physiological state.

The system could also "automatically detect frustration or stress in the user" and "offer and provide assistance accordingly" said the newspaper. Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker's weight, age and health. If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration (presumably from a blue screen of death), it would tell management that he needed help.

The US Patent Office confirmed to the Times that the application was published last month, 18 months after being filed. Patent lawyers said that it could be granted within a year.

According to the Times, Microsoft refused to comment on the application, but said: "We have over 7,000 patents worldwide and we are proud of the quality of these patents and the innovations they represent. As a general practice, we do not typically comment on pending patent applications because claims made in the application may be modified through the approval process."

Remote monitoring is nothing new to the tech industry, but the personal nature of this type of monitoring is more typically associated with fighter pilots or astronauts, than the IT sector. However, with increasing numbers of workers working from home (telecommuting or teleworking), it is not hard to see how parts of the technology could be used to make sure remote workers are at their desks.

Despite studies that show that working from home is better for both workers and bosses, other studies have shown that IT managers fear the security risks caused by remote working practices. A more recent study found that remote working was hard on those who still had to come into the office.

Microsoft will certainly have to tread carefully, as privacy issues about monitoring the workforce can be controversial, as witnessed when Patricia Dunn, the former chair of Hewlett-Packard left the company after asking private investigators to pry into the personal phone records of HP’s board members and some journalists.