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The Ethical Danger of the Microsoft/LinkedIn Merger

This week it was announced that Microsoft is buying LinkedIn.  There are some hidden attorney ethics implications about which we all need to be aware.

A review of the recent news articles announcing the acquisition reveals that a key motivating factor in Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn was access to LinkedIn’s data.  Of course, sharing data is nothing new.  But when companies improve their ability to share our data across various platforms, my ears perk up. Not just because it’s creepy or because of obvious privacy implications. The type of data sharing they’re contemplating in the Microsoft/LinkedIn combination makes me worry about confidentiality (and other) issues.

Why they are merging:

According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft sees a critical synergy with LinkedIn:

“LinkedIn’s users are, arguably, Microsoft’s core demographic. They also offer Microsoft something it has long sought but never had—a network with which users identify. Microsoft needs to persuade LinkedIn users to adopt that identity, and use it across as many Microsoft products as possible.

Access to those users, as well as the enormous amounts of data they throw off, could yield insights and products within Microsoft that allow it to monetize its investment in LinkedIn in ways that the professional networking site might not be able to. [Microsoft CEO] Mr. Nadella already has mentioned a few of these, including going into a sales meeting armed with the bios of participants, and getting a feed of potential experts from LinkedIn whenever Office notices you’re working on a relevant task.“

In other words, Microsoft wants to have your Outlook and other Microsoft software products speak to your LinkedIn profile.  The intersection of that data is valuable — various sellers of products and services would be willing to pay for it.

It appears that Microsoft wants to be able to read through the work we do on their products like Word, review our upcoming appointments in our Outlook calendar, search for keywords in our emails, and then find connections with people with our LinkedIn connections.  That’s what they are searching for — connections they could monetize.

For instance, let’s say accountant X has an Outlook Calendar appointment which sets a meeting with “Charles McKenna of Account-Soft Corp.” Microsoft could then search LinkedIn and it would learn that McKenna works for a company that sells workflow management software.  Well, now Microsoft knows the accountant is in the market for workflow management software….and they could sell that knowledge to other software companies who would then direct solicitations in the accountant’s direction.  That’s an annoyance for an accountant, but a potential ethics disaster if he/she were a lawyer.

Basic issue, Confidentiality:

If Microsoft scours our Word documents and emails, then there could be Rule 1.6 confidentiality issues.  That’s so obvious that we don’t need to spend time talking about it now.  I think the more unusual issues come from the Calendar function…

If they leverage the data in our Calendar, it could reveal our client relationships:

The substance of what we learn from the client is confidential, but so is the very existence of the lawyer-client relationship.  Will the integration of these platforms make it easier for people to figure out who we represent?

Think about how much information Microsoft could piece together from our Calendar.  They might see a potential client introduction (which lists Pete Smith as present), a court appearance (which lists Pete Smith as present), and a meeting for settlement purposes (which lists Pete Smith as present). It’s not going to be too tough for the Microsoft bots to figure out that Pete Smith is your client.

If they leverage data in our Calendar, it could reveal key substantive information that could harm the client:

If Microsoft looks at our Calendar they can see that we’re heading to a particular locale.  They might then cross reference our LinkedIn connections and send a message to one of them that says something like, “Your connection Bruce Kramer is going to Chicago next week.  Why don’t you look him up?”

That heads-up might give someone the incentive to look into our movements a bit more…and who knows what they could find.  What if that info was given to a real estate agent that we know in Chicago…and maybe we are representing a successful land owner…and we’re clandestinely scouting a real estate purchase because we don’t want people to figure out that we’re there on behalf of our deep-pocketed client…because if they know, the purchaser will run up the price.  That LinkedIn message tipped off the real estate agent and it could cost the client a lot of money.

If they leverage data in our Calendar, it could end up revealing a misrepresentation:

Imagine that Client A asks you to accompany them to a meeting in Los Angeles. You tell her that you can’t go because you’ll be on vacation on the East Coast. That’s not true, however. The truth is that you’ve already scheduled a meeting with a potentially new client in Los Angeles. You didn’t want Client A to know that you’d be in town because you didn’t want to have to shuffle between clients- it would just be too much work.  You could have told Client A that you’d be in town but you didn’t have time to meet her, but you thought she’d be insulted.  It was just easier to say you’re far away and be done with it.

Later, Client A gets a LinkedIn message that says, “Your Connection Mary Smith is going to be in Los Angeles next weekend…send her a message and try to link up!”  Do you know what you are now? Busted. And not only do you have egg on your face, but you may also have committed an ethical violation.

Is the white lie that you told your client going to be considered a misrepresentation or deception per Rule 8.4(c)? That rule states: “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to (c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation…”

I know what you’re thinking…it was a half-truth.  No harm no foul. Well, I searched the ethics code, and I didn’t find the term “white lie” or “half-truth” anywhere in the code.  You should also note that Rule 8.4(c) does not require that the misrepresentation be “material.”  It doesn’t allow you to lie about inconsequential things and there’s no modifying language- it just says that you can’t lie or deceive.

These are just a few issues.  Some of these are clear ethics concerns, others are more akin to PR nightmares.  Are they so terrible that we all need to get off LinkedIn right away?  That might be a bit premature.  After all, they only just announced the merging of the platforms- they haven’t actually done anything yet.  I don’t know what dangers will actually be realized, or whether any dangers will be realized at all.  What I do know is that part of being a responsible attorney in this technological age is to be diligent in thinking about these issues.  As lawyers practicing in an ever-changing technological environment, we need to be aware of the potential problems.  Keep your eye on the news and stay abreast about the details regarding the integration of these two platforms.  Then, if you determine that you need to act, do so.  That way we are “keep[ing] abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Comment [8], Rule 1.1

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