How Teams System Messages Can Give Away Personal Secrets

The Real Meaning of July 1

Apart from being the day when new editions of Office 365 for IT Pros appear, July 1 is a big day for MVPs. The annual renewal cycle brings good or bad news in an email from Microsoft to tell MVPs around the world if they have retained the status. For some, it’s a nerve-wracking wait. For others (usually the more experienced MVPs), it’s part of the annual cycle. For the record, a number of well-known MVPs in the Office 365 orbit were not renewed on July 1, including Paul Cunningham, one of the original authors. It’s sad to see talented people leave the program.

All of which brings me to Team system (or service) messages. These are the message posted in the General channel of each team to inform members about people who leave or join the team, the creation of new channels, and so on. The new Information Barrier feature (generally available since June 28 and covered in the 2020 edition of Office 365 for IT Pros) posts messages when it detects policy violations and has to remove people from teams to stop them connecting with people defined in an information barrier policy (Figure 1).

 A user is removed from a team because of an Information Barrier policy
Figure 1: A user is removed from a team because of an Information Barrier policy

I suspect that many pay little attention to notifications that someone has joined or left a team, but they can reveal secrets. We touched on this issue previously when discussing how to protect the privacy of new employees whose names might appear in org-wide teams before they begin working at a company.

They’re All Gone!

The issue was highlighted for me on July 1 when I signed into a team run by the Teams development group for MVPs and found a bunch of notifications about people leaving the team (Figure 2). The penny didn’t take long to drop that these individuals had lost their MVP status. Because they were no longer MVPs, the team owner had to remove them. This is necessary to preserve the Non-Disclosure Agreements signed by MVPs with Microsoft to allow us access to new technology.

Notifications that a bunch of members have been removed from a team
Figure 2: Notifications that a bunch of members have been removed from a team

In this instance, Teams worked the way it was designed and the team owner did nothing wrong. However, the result was that the privacy of the people who had lost their MVP status was compromised in that they had no opportunity to share the news as they wished. It was unfortunate that some of their friends learned the news by seeing these notifications.

The Redundancy Situation

No great harm was done. Most MVPs are not timid individuals who worry deeply about these things, so I doubt that anyone lost sleep about anyone else seeing these notifications. But it got me thinking about how things might happen in a redundancy situation where those affected by job losses might get an inkling of what’s happening through similar notifications. Let’s take the case of a team whose membership is composed of the people in a specific department whose manager is told by the company that they must reduce headcount by three. A choice is made and communicated to HR and senior management, who both approve the decision. Processes are put in place to effect the redundancies, including changes to IT systems.

The way people are let go differs from country to country. In the U.S., it can be much more immediate than in Europe with people being asked to walk out the door without notice. In these scenarios, if IT systems had processed removals from groups to stop people being able to access confidential material, they might learn of their fate before the axe descends (by either not being able to access a team or another team member telling them that their membership is revoked). This is not good.

Vote Now, Vote Often on User Voice

My solution is to ask the Teams development group to introduce a team setting to suppress the posting of system messages to the General channel. In fact, there’s already a User Voice suggestion to turn off “Member add” notifications. If you think the idea is a good one, why don’t you vote for it to help the Teams development group prioritize the idea as they craft future development plans.

Update: June 8: Microsoft has announced that they will remove system messages from the General channel.

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