If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product: teleconference security and safety

Photo of "COVID-19" spelled in scrabble tiles with illustrated viruses floating above

By: David E. Davidson

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”

It’s a clever statement and has enough truth to it that it sounds deep and memorable. But it misses the point. Where that comment makes some sense is where social media gives free access to get you to join and then sells ad time and sells data about you and your use of that particular social media. Where it misses the point is that subscription services and paid social media also sells ads and data about your usage. They can also sell content of your participation.

Why mention this now? Many of us, maybe most of us, are working from home and using video conferencing and video meeting apps to communicate with clients and customers. There has been a lot of attention recently to virtual physician visits and how popular they have become. The U.S. District Court for Eastern Kentucky is encouraging use of video conferencing in most routine procedures. Lawyers are taking depositions using video conference calls and court reporters are advertising availability to provide such services. All of these things, whether the app is free or is subscribed, have privacy risks that any user should know.

  most of the people on Zoom calls probably don’t realize how much information a host can gather. Depending on what tier of service—from a free option to advanced levels for big companies—a host can make a recording of the conference, have it transcribed automatically, and share the information later with people who aren’t in the meeting.

That quote comes from a recent Consumer Reports article about the product that has become wildly popular – Zoom. That quote should make anyone who uses the Zoom app sit up and take notice. Zoom collects the same kinds of information about its users that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other apps collect and sell that information. That is reason enough for caution, but the app also has a feature that the video conference can be transcribed and saved.

In this time of social distancing, I have been part of “virtual happy hours” that have brought together friends and family that cannot see each other. These events have become popular and they serve the great purpose of allowing social interaction where there might not otherwise be any. But, the ability of Zoom, or whatever app you are using, to keep and store and share information used and made visible in the video is not the routine of business or of the professions.

Imagine a situation where a medium sized local manufacturer of a nationally known brand has a competitive advantage in pricing and production costs. Imagine further that the supply chain staff of this company is working remotely while the manufacturing workers are still in active production. Those supply chain workers have video conferences from their homes with each other and they talk about their pricing and production costs, their contracts with vendors and shippers, all of the things that they have worked for decades to develop and that give them an advantage. Who gets a copy of the video and makes a transcript of that meeting?

Imagine a situation where two lawyers meet in a video conference to strategize about an approach to a civil lawsuit, who the witnesses will be, what they will say, and what weaknesses those witnesses have. Who gets the copy of the video of that conference? Who gets the transcript?

Imagine a situation where an accountant working remotely has a video conference with a client … Imagine a situation where a sales representative has a video conference with a customer … Imagine all of the scenarios that are particular to you, your business, or your profession.

These video conference tools are very helpful in this world of social distancing and to help stay in touch and work with clients and customers. Many of these apps are provided for free to get people to use them. But, none of us can just assume that the companies whose services we use care about our privacy or the privacy of the people we work with. You should know that some of these take and keep information obtained during your use of the app for purposes of the app provider unless you take affirmative action to change that. Even the subscription services or apps that you paid for will continue to collect information unless you stop it from happening.

Make sure that you know the privacy policies of the apps that you are using before you utilize them. Your IT professional should be able to help set up things so that privacy is assured.

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David E. Davidson is a trial lawyer who practices in Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati in the areas of personal injury, criminal defense, domestic relations and commercial litigation.