Modern Communications Technology and the Duty of Confidentiality
Opinion rules that when using a cellular or cordless telephone or any other unsecure method of communication, a lawyer must take steps to minimize the risk that confidential information may be disclosed.
Communications by means of cellular and cordless telephones are broadcast over the public airwaves rather than telephone lines. For this reason, a conversation over a cordless or cellular phone may be easily intercepted.
A cordless telephone uses AM or FM radio signals to transmit a communication from the handset to the base unit. This signal can be easily intercepted by a standard AM radio Cordless telephones are, therefore, particularly susceptible to both intentional and unintentional interception. Although less susceptible to unintentional interception, a communication by a cellular telephone can be intentionally intercepted by means of a sophisticated scanner specifically designed for the purpose or by a regular radio scanner, which is available at most electronics stores, that has been modified.
What is a lawyer's ethical responsibility when using a cellular or cordless telephone to communicate client information that is intended to be confidential?
A lawyer has a professional obligation, pursuant to Rule 4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, to protect and preserve the confidences of a client. This professional obligation extends to the use of communications technology. However, this obligation does not require that a lawyer use only infallibly secure methods of communication. Lawyers are not required to use paper shredders to dispose of waste paper so long as the responsible lawyer ascertains that procedures are in place which "effectively minimize the risks that confidential information might be disclosed." RPC 133. Similarly, a lawyer must take steps to minimize the risks that confidential information may be disclosed in a communication via a cellular or cordless telephone. First, the lawyer must use reasonable care to select a mode of communication that, in light of the exigencies of the existing circumstances, will best maintain any confidential information that might be conveyed in the communication. Second, if the lawyer knows or has reason to believe that the communication is over a telecommunication device that is susceptible to interception, the lawyer must advise the other parties to the communication of the risks of interception and the potential for confidentiality to be lost.
What is a lawyer's ethical obligation when using electronic mail to communicate confidential client information?
Although electronic mail or "e-mail," is not conveyed over the public airwaves like communications by cordless or cellular telephones, many of the same concerns for client confidences apply to communications by e-mail. E-mail is susceptible to interception by anyone who has access to the computer network to which a lawyer "logs-on" and such communications are rarely protected from interception by anything more than a simple password. In using e-mail, or any other technological means of communication that is not secure, the same precautions must be taken to protect client confidentiality as are set forth in opinion #1 above.