Written by Susan Kohn Ross and Timothy Carter
Amazon’s Alexa, Google devices such as Google Assistant and Google Home, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana are now commonplace in many homes. These devices and other lesser-known counterparts allow users to control nearly everything in their homes with only their voice. That convenience, however, comes at the cost of some degree of privacy. While seldom viewed as presenting a live microphone inside one’s home or office, these otherwise passive listening devices begin recording upon initiation of a verbal cue. While the use (or even presence) of such voice assistants may present privacy concerns when used in consumers’ homes, with millions of people working remotely across the world due to COVID-19, these potential privacy concerns can quickly escalate to a much broader concern, especially for attorneys, who, as we discussed earlier, are bound to maintain confidentiality regarding information concerning the representation of their clients. But this concern extends far beyond “just” attorneys, because so many business dealings involve the exchange of confidential information. What one thinks of as a private or confidential discussion with a business partner is now taking place at home, perhaps with others around, but all too frequently in close proximity to these devices.
Because these voice-activated devices are theoretically always on – listening and waiting to hear the “wake” command – there are already reports in the press about these devices capturing confidential conversations going on within earshot, and at least occasionally recording them. A recent study from Northeastern University found these devices were often unintentionally activated between 1.5 and 19 times a day, with the average time of activation around 43 seconds. The concern was so significant that one U.K.-based law firm recently issued advice to its staff and attorneys to mute or shut off all voice-activated devices when they talk about client matters at home, and suggested avoiding any of the devices near their work space entirely.
These personal assistant devices have already been known to occasionally activate, making unintended purchases or sending snippets of recorded audio to external parties. With over 76 million units sold as of last year, employers would be wise to again remind those working from home about the importance of keeping confidential work-related discussions confidential and, as much as possible, having such discussions outside of the company of recording devices or, perhaps for some, turn them off altogether!