The hands-free functionality of voice recognition software can be a game-changer for busy legal professionals that need to access software or devices while multi-tasking. The release of Amazon Echo was a significant development in the next stage of voice control that integrated voice recognition software to otherwise unconnected accounts and devices—making the “smart” homes and offices of the future no longer a distant reality. However, that increased capability can create some unique problems for lawyers.
Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Amazon Echo all use hands-free voice recognition, which allows that technology to expand beyond the confines of smartphones. Amazon Echo stands out as being particularly useful for anyone with an Amazon Prime account.
What Can Echo Do for You?
While Echo is more of a toy than a tool for many users, it also has a vast assortment of additional functions that would also be useful in a law office. Amazon Echo can streamline daily tasks from the mundane to the more complex. From checking traffic or weather conditions to asking Amazon Echo to remotely turning on the office coffee maker so a fresh pot of coffee will be waiting, it can be a huge time saver from the start of the morning. Amazon Echo can also provide a customized “Flash News Briefing” with updates from a large number of sources and read the latest new headlines to you. Headlines are only a small sample of what Amazon Echo can read.
Connecting to IFTTT—short for If This Then That—a tool that allows users to automate their workflows across devices through “recipes” that increase productivity means you can tell Alexa to create any number of recipes using services you’ve connected via IFTTT. From email contents to online documents, Echo can read, dictate thoughts or other documents, re-order office supplies, send automated texts when a court is about to close, effectively go to the bank without moving a muscle, and add meetings to a Google calendar which can be synced right into your law practice management software—all without even the touch of a button.
In addition to increasing productivity, Amazon Echo can play Pandora, Amazon Prime music, or local radio stations as well as connect to Belkin WeMo, Wink, Phillips Hue, and SmartThings.
Some significant privacy problems exist with Echo, however. Whenever anyone Echo’s hearing range says a wake word—Alexa, Amazon, or Echo—the cylinder top glows blue and responds to queries that follow. The device currently cannot tell the difference between voices. This means anyone within talking distance has access to every single account you’ve linked to it. At home, Amazon Echo may allow a nosy guest to ask the amount of your bank account or let children bulk order candy. A law office equipped with voice recognition technology, however, presents another level of risks and challenges.
The security and legal ethics risks of voice-command devices are not new. The integration of devices like Amazon Echo simply expands the reach of those risks as the technology is connected in more ways than ever before.
From the moment Alexa wakes up to the end of a voice command, the user’s voice is recorded, transcribed, and stored on Amazon’s servers. Amazon Echo has been equated to inviting Big Brother into your home or office to eavesdrop, then hoping it doesn’t pay attention to what you say.
Amazon uses this data to improve Amazon Echo and personalize the user experience, which is common to most user-oriented machine learning tools. In fact, Apple stores anonymized Siri user data—effectively any voice commands—using an Apple phone or device for up to two years
It is still unclear how long Amazon stores data on its cloud-based storage system, but one thing worth noting is that the user data is not anonymized, so there is currently no way to prevent your personal voice data from being recorded and saved by Amazon.
Amazon has declined to confirm or deny whether it has given the government access to stored data. In theory, however, experts a government agency could get a court order to listen in to users even outside of the scope of commands made following a wake word. In fact, that has already happened in Arkansas, where the police have requested Echo recordings in a homicide investigation. (At this point, Amazon has refused to provide the data.)
Keep Yourself and Your Data Secure
While Amazon Echo raises some questions about the device’s security, it does also have the potential to beef up your law office’s security. With connected security systems, Amazon Echo users have the ability to safeguard and monitor an office from afar, ensuring that confidential client files or costly computer equipment is protected and secure.
Many of the potential security risks associated with using Amazon Echo can also be minimized with careful use.
Amazon Echo was designed with more than one possible wake phrase and with a hard “mute” button that deactivates the microphone without having to completely unplug the device. This way, users can manually disable the microphone during privileged or otherwise confidential conversations to avoid any chance of inadvertently activating the device.
Additionally, the Amazon Echo app enables users to delete specific recordings. Users can also completely delete all voice data with the click of the button by logging into Amazon’s website. The only drawback is that Echo’s accuracy in understanding a user’s voice will revert to “out-of-the-box condition” since all of the user data Echo has since “learned” will no longer be stored.
Legal professionals should stay up to date as features are added, and information on the security of Amazon’s Echo continues to be released.
In the meantime, take some common sense security steps. For example, place Echo in an office or private room rather than a common area, so it is accessible only those who are authorized to access the data.
Amazon Echo’s cutting-edge technology presents new possibilities as well as challenges that have yet to be addressed by bar associations or in the courts.
The consequences of technological incompetence can be disastrous. In Comment 8 to Rule 1.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the ABA explicitly imposes the duty of technological competence on lawyers as a reminder to lawyers that they should remain aware of technology. Legal professionals should be especially cautious with privileged and confidential communications around Echo since the duties under legal ethics and professional conduct rules—as well as the stakes—are potentially even greater.
It is clear that an Amazon Echo-equipped “smart” office presents some level of risk, but so does using a smart phone or any other type of new technology when the full security details are still a bit hazy. Malfunctions are always a possibility with even the most secure new technology, such as when an NPR radio segment caused Amazon Echos across the country to “revolt” earlier in 2016.
Legal professionals are increasingly taking advantage of the latest technologies to increase the efficiency of their law practices, but must also come to terms with the increased risks accompanying that progress. The likelihood of Amazon Echo’s data being compromised by hacking is considered by many to be small due to Amazon’s security measures. However, keeping abreast of the latest technological developments and updates to the legal ethics duties stemming from those developments is vital to ensuring data remains secure and in compliance with ethical rules.
Amazon Echo has the potential to be an extremely useful tool in the office or at home, but legal professionals need to make sure it can’t listen in on sensitive communications.