Kennedy on Tech

Social media has trade-offs for lawyers

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An old but thought-provoking Internet adage is: “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” So we might be getting benefits from free social media or other cloud services, but we are simultaneously giving up some privacy or providing other information in return. It’s up to each of us to determine whether the trade-off is worth it.

On a regular basis you can find stories of unexpected permissions given, access to data allowed and security issues raised in connection with cloud services, mobile apps and other technologies. Many times, terms buried in a click-through agreement will surprise us. In other cases, we might agree to levels of access that we don’t understand or expect.

A few months ago, I attended a tech seminar for lawyers. During a presentation on cloud computing and security, a lawyer in the audience blurted out: “Why can’t we just go back to plain old paper envelopes and first-class stamps? That was secure.”

The question was a sincere one, and it expressed the frustration many lawyers feel with all of the security and other issues they need to become familiar with. A question for another day is how secure and disaster-proof the method of dropping a paper envelope with an original legal document into the mail really is, and how that approach would withstand the questions cloud services get.


Opting out of the Internet is not a realistic choice. What can you do?

1. Read the terms. Need I say more? Someone needs to understand the legal obligations, and it probably should be you. Also, don’t assume terms cannot be negotiated, especially when smaller companies or services are involved.

2. Do your due diligence. Most of the issues with major services have been highlighted, analyzed and discussed. The bigger the service, the easier it is to find the discussion. Take care that you find recent information.

3. Have reasonable assumptions. Free or paid, there will always be a trade-off between privacy/security and features/benefits. In this new era of big data, the information you provide is essential to the company’s business proposition. If you can understand what the business model is, you will better understand the choices you want to make.

4. Understand the issues in the news stories. Lawyers need to understand technology issues not just to use tech themselves but also, increasingly, to evaluate risks and advise clients. Late last year, there were stories about potential security issues involving a new service from LinkedIn called LinkedIn Intro. It integrates with your email to add publicly available LinkedIn information about senders, but it might also temporarily cache your email password or messages on LinkedIn’s servers. Understanding the questions raised requires a basic knowledge of computer security to evaluate the risks.

Privacy and security issues today can be complex and difficult. The benefits of the technologies we use, especially cloud services and mobile apps, can be too great to ignore or avoid. Striking the balance is something lawyers should be able to excel at. Are you ready to do that?

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Play or Stay Private: Social media is a trade-off.”

This article was last updated Tuesday, Jan. 28, to correct a Web editing error in the text.

Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based legal technology writer and information technology lawyer.

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