For those not used to working from home, the recent transition due to COVID-19 may feel a little jarring and surreal. Beyond setting up your home office, acclimating to new, child-sized distractions, and growing accustomed to meetings coordinated over software like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams, there are other important confidentiality and security considerations. Attorneys working in a home office need to ensure their new “office” is secure.
In an office environment, you are used to the comfort and security of a closed meeting room or closed office door allowing for private discussions of lawyerly matters. Working from home, you may feel concerned about the obvious potential of an open window or an unsecured connection. But what about the even more unexpected – an Amazon Alexa or equivalent smart speaker devices.
Last week, Bloomberg reported that the UK law firm of Mishcon de Reya, famous for advising Princess Diana on her divorce, had issued advice to their attorneys to shut down smart speaker devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Amazon’s Dot, and Google’s voice assistant. It was recommended that these devices not even be in the same room where business is being conducted.
There are other devices, too, which have similar security concerns. Baby monitors, Amazon Ring, off brand smart speakers, and even smart TVs have been hacked in the past. Joe Hancock, who heads Mischon de Reya’s cybersecurity department, stated “Perhaps we’re being slightly paranoid but we need to have a lot of trust in these organizations and these devices. We’d rather not take those risks.”
It is not entirely paranoid to have concerns. As of last year, there were 76 million of these smart speaker devices in the United States, and they are notorious for activating in error. A recent study by Northeastern University and Imperial College London found that these devices can inadvertently activate up to 19 times per day. Amazon has also admitted to listening in to recorded conversations without consent to improve their AI algorithms, although you may now opt out of manual review.
Alexa is ALWAYS listening. While she (or it?) only reacts to the word “Alexa,” in order for the device to react to that word it must always be listening. Does all of the voice data get transmitted to Amazon servers for translation? It seems logical that it does, though Amazon may say otherwise.
Attorneys having privileged conversations with clients cannot risk Joe Schmo of Amazon listening in and publicly exposing sensitive information. With these devices’ widespread usage, it seems like only a matter of time until a story like this emerges.
Mastering remote work is all about finding the right tools to stay productive and connected. Therefore, you must ensure you are “connecting” only to those intended devices. Turning off these smart speakers for work is a great first security step and it may lead to you realizing that the surveillance state is an unwelcome listener beyond your working hours. Security or convenience is a choice we must make in today’s technological society – even if that choice requires primitive behavior, like standing up to change the current song.
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