A look at Amazon’s voice-activated reporting capabilities by @Lihsa

Today I listened to a webex on how to set up Amazon’s Alexa with key analytics applications to deliver voice-activated reporting.

Alexa, can you hear me now? Invoking Amazon's Alexa Skill Interface for custom reports by Lihsa

Now it was super nerdy and I don’t even pretend to understand all of the programming involved that will let you ask Alexa, “How many Huey, Dewey and Louie Law Firm budgets were created today?” Or “Alexa, how many people are looking at my Huey, Dewey and Louie Law Firm  web site right now?”

It is something to do with designing a custom Alexa Skill Interface with custom “wake words”, “invocation words” and “intent processing.” Way over my head. But I like the idea of an invocation word—sounds magical doesn’t it?

[Side bar: one thing to know about invocation words as that they should be your brand’s name. So think about that: law firm names are notoriously long. Can you imagine saying over and over again, “How many Hewey, Dewy and Louie Law Firm blah, blah, blah … ?”]

All of this sounds great. But then envision yourself, a la Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible III, being held at gunpoint, and told to read a nonsensical paragraph so that your doppelganger can replicate your vocal chords.

That is the flaw with voice-activated reporting (much like the flaws with iPhone’s facial recognition technology). Yes, I present an extreme hypothetical. Really, who wants to see a law firm’s web site analytics. Major snooze fest.

But it does raise a serious security consideration when contemplating this nascent technology.  What’s to stop someone from walking into anyone’s voice-activated office and asking, “Alexa, what is my colleague’s salary? Alexa, please send me the highly confidential, private report on Client X. Alexa, will I get a Christmas bonus this year?”

These are the things that inquiring minds want to know. And should Alexa be all that ready to be that helpful?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of acting like a smooth talker (even though I’m frequently at a loss for words) and Alexa giving me instant answers. But I think we are too far from the necessary security to see this technology actively used in the legal workspace. Yet.

In this day and age of constant communications and observation, I guess the announcement from TLO shouldn’t surprise me as much as it did. It seems that TLO is launching a new service tomorrow that will use License Plate Recognition (LPR) technology and will return to you the places, times and dates that those license plates (and presumably the car it is attached) were spotted by the LPR and give you “the historical whereabouts of both individuals and vehicles.”

I haven’t seen the reports yet, but I’m not sure whether I’m impressed that TLO has this ability now, or scared that this type of information is out there for public consumption. I’m also going to guess that this type of survellance to public record searching technology is only going to get bigger as time goes on.

So… in just reading this press release, are you:

  • impressed
  • scared
  • meh
  • moving to Europe

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I’ve been watching a disturbing trend. More and more people are laconically letting the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and FourSquare taking over their lives.

I admit. I am as much a victim, perhaps even more of a victim, than you are.

My excuse is that it’s my job.

But what about the rest of the world?

Have we become so used to the entertainment value of being connected to the internet that we have forsaken our right to privacy? Are we so driven by “ease-of-use” that we are willing to let the likes of eBay, Continental and Amazon into the privacy of our homes? Will we, as a nation, place so much value in our desire to be connected to one another that we are willing to forfeit what many perceive to be an inherent right?
But first a history lesson.

The right to privacy is not in the U.S. Constitution. Nor is it in the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence.

Yep, its true.

The right of privacy didn’t make its way into our collective conscience until Justice Brandeis issued his ground-breaking dissent in the 1928 case of Olmstead v. United States. This criminal case swirled around the admissibility of a wiretapping. In a somewhat prophetic analogy, he compares the act of wiretapping to the act of tampering with someone’s mail and says, “the evil incident to invasion of the privacy of the telephone is far greater than that involved in tampering with the mails.”

You’re thinking to yourself, “well, I’ve got mail. Tons of mail. An inbox full of e-mail.”

Brandeis goes on to talk about the peril of not subjecting our government to the same rules of conduct that we expect of our citizens.

I suggest we take Brandeis’ point one step further: we should hold our corporations to these same rules of conduct.

We could be taking these companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google to task for spreading our likes and dislikes to the four corners of the winds and ads are chasing us from online store pillars to online posts.

But the real problem is those darned EULAs.

In our rush to gain access to our Gmail and one-click ordering on Amazon, we have clicked through those end-user agreements without even reading them. GASP—yes, I, a lawyer, don’t even read the fine print.

Daily, we are forfeiting our right to privacy. Incrementally, injudiciously and surreptitiously, we are handing the biggest companies in the world our personal information.

And we don’t even care.

Have we become so comfortable in this Oprah-confessing world that we have no problem baring all before God and man?

Have we decided that there is no shame in ripping off the fig leaves from Adam and Eve?

Are we comfortable letting everyone know what we think, feel and believe?

And is this such a bad thing?

I don’t know.

Maybe the right of privacy only exists in my imagination.

But then isn’t that really the crux of it? That privacy is a concept that we created in our own minds—that nothing is truly private once a thought is created, vocalized or expressed?

For I see that if we do let go of our right to privacy, the next right to be abandoned would be the right of creation.

Yes, the rights of intellectual property.

So with that, dear reader, is where I will leave you. I have no answers. Only my muddling mulling.

And, so at least for today, I would tell Virginia, “yes, there is a right to privacy.”

Photo by woodleywonderworks

There have been a couple of very interesting opinions coming out of New York recently. I’ll lay out the decisions below, but my reading of these decisions tells me that if you’re a lawyer in New York, you should suggest to your clients that they shutdown their Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or any other social media account immediately because chances are, the other side will be able to get access to these accounts if they ask.

Opinion 843 – Accessing Public Facebook and MySpace Information for use in trial.


The first is an ethics opinion from the New York State Bar Association (PDF) that asks if a lawyer may:

“view and access the Facebook or MySpace pages of a party other than his or her client in pending litigation in order to secure information about that party for use in the lawsuit, including impeachment material, if the lawyer does not “friend” the party and instead relies on public pages posted by the party that are accessible to all members in the network.”

Attorneys were still not clear whether looking and using information from a person’s Facebook, MySpace or other social media pages that were public violated the ethical rules of the state. Well, fear no longer my friend, and the Committee on Professional Ethics ruled that:

“A lawyer who represents a client in a pending litigation, and who has access to the Facebook or MySpace network used by another party in litigation, may access and review the public social network pages of that party to search for potential impeachment material. As long as the lawyer does not “friend” the other party or direct a third person to do so, accessing the social network pages of the party will not violate Rule 8.4 (prohibiting deceptive or misleading conduct), Rule 4.1 (prohibiting false statements of fact or law), or Rule 5.3(b)(1) (imposing responsibility on lawyers for unethical conduct by nonlawyers acting at their direction).”

Romano vs. Steelcase – Access to private and deleted Facebook and MySpace accounts


The second decision came from Judge Jeffrey Arlen Spinner of Suffolk County Supreme Court decision of Romano v. Steelecase (PDF). In this decision, the court granted the:

“Defendant access to Plaintiff’s current and historical Facebook and MySpace pages and accounts, including all deleted pages and related information”

In this case where the Plaintiff was asking for damages for personal injuries, the Defense was claiming that they had reason to believe that the Plaintiff posted pictures and information that showed she was not suffering from a loss of enjoyment of life. Not only did the Defendant want to access the private portions of the Plaintiff’s account, but they also wanted access to any deleted information.
Judge Spinner agreed ordered that the:

Plaintiff shall deliver to Counsel for Defendant STEELCASE a properly executed consent and authorization as may be required by the operators of Facebook and MySpace, permitting said Defendant to gain access to Plaintiff’s Facebook and MySpace records, including any records previously deleted or archived by said operators

Bottom line in New York (and possibly every place else in the United States): Expect everything you post on Facebook or MySpace to be considered public information by the courts, and don’t expect that your self-imposed privacy settings will protect you if you’re ever taken to court.

After reading Acquisti and Grossklags’ brilliant paper, “What can Behavioral Economics Teach Us About Privacy?”, I started thinking about how we, as users, engage in protecting our own privacy.

Basically, it all comes down to value: how much do I value my privacy?

And frankly, my privacy may be more valuable than your privacy. I mean, honestly, if your credit is in the tank or you’ve declared bankruptcy, you may be begging for someone to steal your identity.

So the value of privacy is relative.

Furthermore, how much we value privacy at any given moment may change, based upon the situation.

If that fellow on Match.com who says he’s from Nigeria is asking for my bank account number, I’m telling him “hell, no.”

But if that handsome tennis player on Match.com, posing next to a Jag doesn’t ask for my phone number soon, I may send it to him anyways (not really, Mom; it’s just an example!)

So value is subjective.

We are also more likely to divulge information to sites that give the appearance of security.
So if there is a Verisign badge on the site, along with a professional-looking design and a secured log indicated by a an “https”, we don’t mind turning over our social security number.

So value is based upon appearances.

And then there is what I will call the “Price is Right” effect: given a choice between Door Number 1, which has a free, all-expense paid trip to Maui, or the unknown prize behind Door Number 2, most of us will pick Door Number 1. So, in other words, I am more likely to give my data to a known entity than an unknown entity.

So value is based upon experience.

Lastly, in what I call the “Garage Sale” phenomenon, consider the price of protecting my privacy versus the value I place on my privacy when someone wants it. Call it the meeting of the minds amongst Ebenezer Scrooge, Jed Clampett and Donald Trump–that’s scary.

So value is based upon positioning.

To wrap this all up, I have only one question: so just how are we going to standardize all of this?

The NYTimes reports that Virginia Democrat Representative Rick Boucher, who now chairs the House Subcommittee on telecommunications, technology and the internet, wants to write a law to require web surfers to “opt-in” to share personal information with trafficked web sites.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that is necessary.

Think about it: less than 10 years ago, people were spooked because Amazon knew their book selections and was suggesting related books. Now-a-days, if a site doesn’t have the “suggested items,” users get really crabby and want to know why the site is so “unsophisticated.”

In fact, according to a TRUSTe survey, site visitors are getting less paranoid about online tracking: last year, 57% found online tracking “disturbing”. this year, it dropped to 51%. OPA Intelligence Report, 3/16/09.

Sure, people are “saying” that people are squeamish about Google tracking social behavior to figure out what ads are more interesting to them.

Interestingly, though, Yahoo! rolled out their own version of social behavior targeting called “Search Retargeting” on February 24 with barely a whimper from privacy advocates.

Think about it: its no different than merchandising at a grocery store. Kroger’s and other grocery stores display the Kraft’s parmesan cheese next to the frozen pizza. Nobody’s griping about that. Kroger’s and other grocery stores have their little “frequent flyer” cards hooked on shoppers’ key rings to get “substantial savings” in exchange for letting grocers know what kind of food shoppers are buying. Nobody’s griping about that.

So go ahead, make our overworked, over-bloated, nothing-better-to-do government wrangle over this “privacy” law that requires all of your favorite ISPs, search engines, e-mail accounts and web sites to post little check boxes so that you have to click to allow them access to your online excavations.

But I can guarantee you that in 5 years or less, you are going to be clicking every single one of those boxes because, doggone it, it’s a hassle to reload your personal data into each of your favorite sites.

Because I can guarantee you that Google and all the other search providers–Sear’s included–is going to figure out a way to make you WANT to give them your personal surfing information. Maybe something like, if you follow the scavenger hunt from Sears to Disneyto Netflix, you will get a free movie. Or if you go from Google to NASCAR to ticketmaster, you will get a 3% discount.

Or, even better, if you go to Google to Medweb to your doctor to the hospital, all of your medical files will follow you.

Just imagine the future. Do really you want to slow it down?

Besides, Rick Boucher’s busy trying to convert all of our TVs to digital right now. You don’t want to stop him from working on that, do you?

Toby and I presented on the topic of Privacy and Technology at the Houston Area Law Librarians (HALL) 2008 Fall Conference.  I’m pretty sure that after we were through scaring the bejesus out of those who attended, they all went home, disconnected themselves from the Internet, and are now living in a commune somewhere in the Idaho panhandle.  
For those of you that missed the presentation (that would be you, since you’re obviously still connected to the Internet) – we’re posting the PowerPoint slides here on the GeekLawBlog.