Thursday, October 09, 2008

TelePresence. A technology to beat the credit crunch and global warming or having a third party peaking at your meetings?

Today’s Financial Times runs an article referring to the benefits of using TelePresence technologies, to both cut costs and reduce companies’ carbon footprint. The technology seems quite amazing and gives users the opportunity to carry out meeting that seem real while the participants are scattered around the globe. By using this technology, millions are saved in travelling cost and workers’ time, keeping the vilified use of planes and cars to a minimum (I stress vilified because despite the huge media fuss, if we forget the costs, airlines produce only 3% of CO2 emissions in Europe). The idea is that big companies, that can afford it, will buy the whole system (hardware and software) while smaller ones will either lease it or pay per use in dedicated TelePresence centres, and here is where things get complicated. I have spent some time looking for the terms of service without finding any reference to anything looking like legal issues, and these legal matters could be quite serious for companies using the technology by leasing it or on pay per use basis.
The first and most obvious issue relates to data protection, privacy and security. Will the provider of the service put in place the technological and legal safeguards to make sure that only the participants of the meeting have access to the data that the meeting generates? Will the company paying for the services have access to such a data? If that is the case and some of the participants are in England, will the company have to inform the meeting participants about such monitoring and data retention as requested by RIPA 2000? Just a general notification or one each time that a meeting starts?
It seems unlikely that companies using the service as lessee or on pay per use basis would accept the owner of the system to monitor the meeting and/or retain the data resulting from it, but it the provider of the service does not do so and the system is used for illegal purposes, would the provider be liable? While the answer seems to be no, we are facing a very strong attack against third party’s immunity, which may end in making intermediaries liable for almost anything that happens in their systems.
Other important issue relates to the differences between the need of a warrant to bug a real-life meeting and the potentially easier access that the authorities would have to tap into electronic communications (without mentioning the possibilities of hacking).
I have always suggested that one of the ways to deal with rising costs and rising emissions is the use of technologies like the proposed, but unless there is a clear message towards stronger privacy and third party/intermediary immunity laws, we may better start planting more trees…

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