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The Max Gruver Foundation Seeks to Bring Change to Hazing

On September 13, 2017, Max Gruver and his pledge brothers were called to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house at LSU to participate in a hazing ritual. The pledges were quizzed on the fraternity and the Greek alphabet, pelted with hot sauce and mustard and forced to do “planks” and “wall sits.”[1] Wrong answers to the older fraternity brothers’ questions were met with the penalty of being forced to chug hard liquor. Max’s pledge brother could hear him messing up the Greek alphabet and a member of Phi Delta Theta making him drink repeatedly.

Sadly, Max would not survive the hazing by his fraternity. He passed away at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital with an astounding blood alcohol content of .495, more than six times the legal intoxication level for driving. An autopsy showed Max died of “acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration.” It became clear that the actions of Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers contributed to Max’s passing. Ten of the fraternity members would later be arrested and charged criminally. One would be indicted by a grand jury for negligent homicide and three would be indicted for hazing.[2]

Max’s family has suffered an unexpected tragedy. However, they are seeking to produce positive changes from their loss, so that no other family must endure a similar experience. They created the Max Gruver Foundation to combat excessive alcohol consumption, bullying, and hazing in college.[3]  The Max Gruver Foundation hopes to strengthen the laws across the country pertaining to hazing, as well as implement regulations colleges should be enforcing.  

A primary goal of the foundation is to increase transparency, making fraternities and sororities disclose hazing incidents, excessive drinking, or penalties they’ve received. The hope is that these disclosures would permit parents and prospective members to make informed decisions while choosing a fraternity or sorority. If they see a long history of violations, they can choose to steer clear of that organization. The Max Gruver Foundation believes transparency and negative attention would cause Greek organizations to avoid engaging in bad behavior.

The Max Gruver Foundation also seeks to solve a critical dilemma often facing fraternity members. When illicit behavior results in a medical emergency, fear of getting in trouble produces a hesitance to get help. A delay in seeking medical attention could be the difference between life and death. Thus, the Foundation hopes to bridge the gap between serious legal consequences for wrongdoing and amnesty for doing the right thing by seeking help.

The advocacy of Max’s family has spurred the Louisiana legislature to take action. In May of 2018, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the Max Gruver Act and a set of anti-hazing bills into law.[4] This legislation has increased penalties and fines for individuals engaged in hazing, as well as created fines for the organizations themselves.

The criminal justice system is currently prosecuting the individuals responsible for Max’s death. Max’s family has also filed a suit against the university and Phi Delta Theta for turning a blind eye to violations and hazing incidents for years.[5]  Max’s family is hopeful these actions will result in significant changes to this culture and protect future college students. The Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm is proud to represent the Gruver family and seek justice for Max.

To carry forward Max Gruver’s legacy and promote positive changes to our laws, schools, and Greek organizations, please donate to the Max Gruver Foundation here.

 


[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/hazing-in-america/ten-arrested-lsu-phi-delta-theta-fraternity-hazing-death-n809806

[2] https://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2018/03/4_indicted_in_lsu_hazing_death.html

[3] https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/education/article_0d3063f6-e74c-11e7-bf2e-8bb41204414b.html

[4] https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/politics/legislature/article_7648a0c0-64e1-11e8-8074-dff7f1422134.html

[5] https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/courts/article_d93cd6e4-a189-11e8-9e61-438d3a74eb1f.html


The Future of Blockchain

Since the world embraced computers, connected via the internet, and converted mass amounts of sensitive data into digital form, several problems have arisen.  Hacking, identity theft, and manipulation of digital data plague businesses, consumers, and governments daily. It’s very difficult to trust and verify the identity of someone you’re conducting business with on another continent, that you’ll receive what they claim to be selling, and that your payment will get there securely and quickly.  

These problems slow commerce down and create costs, usually in the form of lawyers or other middle men doing the verification leg-work.  Blockchain technology helps eliminate concerns about hacking and trust, greatly reducing transaction costs and processing times.

Even if Bitcoin fizzles out tomorrow, the underlying blockchain technology is not only here to stay, but primed to grow exponentially…and soon.  You can look at Bitcoin like Myspace, one of the first social media platforms. Even though Myspace failed, the concept of social media lives on in countless other manifestations.  Many pundits believe blockchain technology will be “the next Internet.”

Smart Contracts

A “smart contract” is a commonly discussed application for blockchain technology.  A smart contract is automatically executed when certain predefined conditions occur (if X does Y, then execute Z).  Smart contracts theoretically allow individuals or companies to craft contracts with highly detailed conditions, but without the need for a legal document written by a lawyer.

Currently, if parties to a contract either don’t perform or don’t pay, the aggrieved party must sue the breaching party to get paid or get their money back.  This all costs time and money, even if the contract is honored.

The blockchain replaces lawyers and courts in a smart contract.  Let’s say I create a smart contract with the following conditions: I want 5 bushels of apples at a price of $200 delivered in 5 days.  Johnny Appleseed accepts and our smart contract becomes part of the blockchain, with its precise terms fixed and recorded across thousands of other computers.  Upon acceptance, $200 would automatically be deducted from my account, but not yet given to Johnny. If the apples arrive on the 5th day, that $200 automatically transfers to Johnny.  If Johnny fails to deliver on the 5th day, I automatically get my $200 back.

Additional conditions could also be built in, such as automatically giving me $10 from Johnny’s account if he fails to deliver by Day 5, charging either party $5 for backing out before Day 5, automatically refunding my account the price of however many apples he shorts me, etc.

The bitcoin blockchain does not have the capability to incorporate smart contracts; bitcoin was designed to only process payment transactions.  The second-most valuable cryptocurrency is called Ethereum; its blockchain was designed for monetary transactions, as well as smart contracts. Ethereum’s added functionality may give it an edge in the long run over bitcoin.

Research by Accenture estimates that investment banks alone could save up to $12 billion per year using blockchain and smart contracts for financial transactions.[1]  There will be many practical and legal kinks to work out before smart contracts gain widespread use, but businesses and consumers will certainly jump at the opportunity to avoid dealing with contract lawyers and the judicial system once a viable alternative presents itself.

Other Uses

Major players in the global food supply chain are poised to adopt blockchain, with IBM announcing a collaboration with several grocery chains and food suppliers such as Walmart, Kroger, Dole, and Tyson Foods.[2]  The goal is to streamline the entire process by securely and transparently tracking goods at every step, from the farmer to the store shelf.  Blockchain will reduce inefficiencies with ordering, shipping, and billing; most importantly, it will increase food safety by tracing sources of contamination, helping to quickly stem the spread of illness.

Coca Cola and the U.S. State Department are launching a project using blockchain’s digital ledger technology to create a secure registry for workers that will help fight the use of forced labor worldwide.[3]

Practically every industry is now analyzing how blockchain technology can reduce inefficiencies and establish trust through verification in a secure and transparent manner.  Blockchain has the potential to revamp even historically bureaucratic fields, such as healthcare, real estate, automotive/land title work, insurance, and the judicial system.

 

 

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogeraitken/2017/11/21/smart-contracts-on-the-blockchain-can-businesses-reap-the-benefits/#6d23a8461074

[2] http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/53013.wss

[3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-blockchain-coca-cola-labor/coca-cola-u-s-state-dept-to-use-blockchain-to-combat-forced-labor-idUSKCN1GS2PY

 


Steps You Should Take if You’re Involved in an Uber Accident

Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services have become widely used in recent years. As a cheaper and more user-friendly alternative to taxi cabs, Uber has become the go-to service for a trip to the airport or a ride home when you’ve had a few drinks. The vast majority of Uber rides will result in arriving at your destination without incident. But what happens if your Uber driver gets into a wreck and you suffer an injury?

Uber and Lyft provide its drivers with third-party liability coverage up to at least $1 million per accident.¹ This means that if your Uber/Lyft driver is at fault, this insurance will cover liability for any damages to a third party such as the passenger. Uber also provides uninsured or underinsured motorist bodily injury coverage to its drivers. This covers any passenger in the vehicle when another driver is at fault, but that driver doesn’t have sufficient insurance coverage for your injuries. This coverage also applies to hit-and-runs where the at-fault driver is never identified.

So, if you are injured during an accident where your driver is at fault in Louisiana, both Uber and Lyft have a policy through the James River Insurance Company that covers your injuries for up to $1 million.² It is important that you contact a lawyer to ensure the proper party is sued.³ You don’t necessarily sue just the at-fault driver. Your lawyer would also send a letter to Uber and your driver instructing them to preserve evidence, requiring them to save all data or information related to your ride.

When another driver is at fault, you would first determine if the other driver’s insurance policy can cover your damages. If your injuries are serious and the other driver’s policy cannot cover the medical costs, then Uber and Lyft both have policies through the James River Insurance Company that could cover you up to $1 million.

If you get into a wreck while in an Uber, here are some recommended steps to follow that will assist your injury claims:

  •     Call 911 and take pictures of the wreck, including the license plates of all vehicles involved.
  •     Take down the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of any potential witnesses to the              crash.
  •     Write down the name of your Uber driver and the other driver.
  •     Take screenshots on your phone of the Uber ride and receipt.
  •     Finally, if you are injured or incur any medical bills, hire an attorney to handle your personal injury        claims.

We understand it might be intimidating to take legal action against a large corporate entity like Uber, but you are not alone. With the help of legal assistance, people hurt by negligent drivers have been successful in recovering damages from Uber and other rideshare companies.

 


[1]https://www.uber.com/drive/insurance/ https://help.lyft.com/hc/en-us/articles/115013080548-Insurance-Policy

[2]https://www.uber.com/newsroom/an-update-on-insurance/

[3]http://time.com/money/4851877/my-uber-got-into-a-wreck-can-i-sue/


The Downside of Bitcoin

Black Market + Money Laundering

An attractive feature of bitcoin is that while every transaction is transparent and public, the parties involved are anonymous.  If Party A transfers 3 bitcoin to Party B, they would only be identified by their bitcoin address or “public key.” A user’s “private key” serves as their signature or password and remains hidden.  However, no personally identifying information is necessary to complete the transaction.

Bitcoin was initially adopted by true believers of blockchain technology’s potential, but also by a less savory bunch.  Bitcoin’s anonymity and lack of regulation was enticing for criminals and those looking to fly under government radar.  Thus, bitcoin’s early days saw it become the lifeblood of the digital black market.  For several years, a criminal marketplace known as the Silk Road flourished on the “dark web.”  Before it was shut down in 2013, one could purchase illegal drugs, guns, child pornography, and even hire hit men.  During this time, 30% of all bitcoin transactions took place on the dark web, but now that number is down to 1%. Bitcoin was initially cheap and relatively stable, but this past year’s catapult to nearly $20,000 and subsequent volatility has led the criminal element to adopt other cryptocurrencies.  When the FBI shut down the Silk Road, they seized what is now worth $1.2 billion worth of bitcoin.

Increased government regulation is also making bitcoin less appealing for criminal transactions.  Most popular bitcoin exchanges now require identifying information to create accounts in order to comply with IRS regulations.  Although the public key may just be numbers without personal information, law enforcement has now developed methods of identifying users if necessary.

While criminal transactions using bitcoin have dropped, it is still an attractive option for money launderers.  New research shows bitcoin has led to a large upswing in money laundering.  Now that bitcoin is more mainstream, a growing number of real estate purchases are being made with bitcoin, offering ripe opportunities to convert illicit funds into legitimate assets and cash.  However, the law surrounding money laundering and bitcoin is still being settled, including whether it is subject to the same federal banking regulations as traditional currency.

 

Valuation 

Numerous factors make bitcoin an extremely risky investment.  Bitcoin was created out of thin air by computer code. Bitcoin has no underlying value, other than what people are willing to pay for it.  Its valuation isn’t tied to performance like a company’s stock price, but simply by the whims of market demand.

 Bitcoin’s recent roller coaster price changes have caught the attention of government regulators.  The wild west of bitcoin will likely soon be tamed by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The uncertainty about future regulation and its effects will continue to fuel bitcoin’s volatility.

Another major issue for volatility are the exchanges where bitcoin is bought and sold.  One of the most popular, Coinbase, has experienced severe growing pains since demand ballooned so quickly.  At the height of the recent bitcoin boom, the Coinbase exchange crashed several times due to the volume of trading occurring.  With huge price swings occurring by the minute, the inability to sell for hours at a time caused many to lose thousands of dollars.

 

Competition

Bitcoin was the trailblazer of the cryptocurrency world, but there are now thousands of other cryptocurrencies and blockchain platforms.  Bitcoin also only serves a specific function – transferring money. Bitcoin cannot be rewritten now to include added functionality that other cryptocurrencies have added, like “smart contracts.”  This inflexibility may hurt bitcoin in the long run.

 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnwasik/2018/03/21/how-new-ruling-will-curb-crypto-bitcoin-bubble/#699f9e42ae2b

http://fortune.com/2017/12/22/coinbase-bitcoin-crash/


Family Alleges University and Frat Ignored Known Hazing Traditions that Resulted in Son’s Death

Baton Rouge, La.,  August 16, 2018 – Today, the parents of Maxwell (Max) Gruver, the Louisiana State University (LSU) freshman who tragically died from alcohol poisoning as a result of hazing in 2017, filed a federal lawsuit against LSU, the local and national chapters of Phi Delta Theta, the housing corporation that owns Phi Delta Theta’s fraternity house at LSU, and members of the fraternity.  Max’s parents allege the hazing ritual that caused his death would never have taken place if LSU or Phi Delta Theta had responded appropriately to numerous complaints of hazing at Phi Delta Theta’s chapter at LSU in the years before Max’s death.

The Gruver family alleges in their lawsuit that LSU’s and Phi Delta Theta’s failure to end the tradition of hazing at the chapter was driven by a broken model of self-governance and outdated gender stereotypes about young men engaging in masculine rites of passage — in direct violation of Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination.  According to the family’s Complaint, because of LSU’s policy and practice of treating the hazing of male students less seriously than the hazing of female students, males participating in Greek Life face serious and substantial risks of injury and death, while female students pledging sororities do not.  LSU’s policy and practice meant that a sorority accused of hazing its pledges by making them sing songs and do sit-ups and putting whipped cream, syrup and eggs in their hair was given “Total Probation” by LSU – the most severe sanction LSU can impose, short of rescinding its recognition of the sorority – while Phi Delt’s chapter, which admitted to hazing in 2016, was only placed on interim suspension for a month.

“We refuse to accept that the events that caused Max’s death can be explained away as ‘boys being boys,’” said Mr. and Mrs. Gruver in a statement.  “That notion is deeply offensive and wrong-headed. LSU and Phi Delt knew dangerous hazing was taking place at Phi Delt’s LSU chapter for years, yet they continued to allow the chapter and its members to investigate and police themselves. This inaction allowed dangerous hazing traditions at the chapter to persist.  We’ve lost Max as result of those hazing traditions, and his loss has created a devastating impact that reaches not just us, but Max’s siblings, family, friends, and all who knew him.  Until institutions and national fraternities begin treating the hazing of young men as the serious offense that is, with real consequences for members and local chapters that engage in it, hazing and other dangerous misconduct at fraternities will continue.  And each year, more families like ours will have to suffer through these horrific tragedies.”

“Every year, and for decades, young men have died or suffered traumatic injuries pledging fraternities that are dangerous, yet glowingly promoted with false and misleading information by the partnerships between fraternities and universities,” said Douglas Fierberg, legal counsel for the Gruver family.  “A central purpose of this lawsuit is to compel LSU, Phi Delta Theta and other universities to eliminate dangerous hazing traditions, end the killing of young men, and stop lying to students and families who have the right to know information that may save lives.”

To learn more about this case and the Gruver’s fight to stop hazing, please visit The Max Gruver Foundation.


What is Bitcoin Anyway?

You’ve likely heard Bitcoin discussed on the news recently.  At one point, Bitcoin skyrocketed to $19,000 in a matter of weeks, only to plummet in value shortly thereafter (it’s valued around $8,000 as of 4/18/18).  It’s not unheard of for its value to fluctuate 20-30% daily. Bitcoin will likely remain a highly volatile investment as the general public, Wall Street, and world governments come to terms with it.  So what exactly is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin was invented in 2009 to be a new, purely digital currency (known as a cryptocurrency).  Satoshi Nakamoto developed bitcoin as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system allowing online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.[1]  Satoshi Nakamoto’s true identity is a mystery, as this name is widely believed to be a pseudonym.  Whoever Nakamoto is, he or she is a billionaire. When bitcoin’s value surged to $19,000, this anonymous owner of 980,000 bitcoins was worth $19.4 billion.[2]

What differentiates bitcoin from traditional currency is its decentralized design.  It is not created and distributed by a central authority, in the way the US Federal Reserve and other central banks mint and control their currencies.  The bitcoin system is maintained by an open network of computers spread around the world.[3]  Central banks can manipulate their currency’s value relative to others by controlling its supply.  Since Bitcoin isn’t controlled by a single entity, its value cannot be manipulated by fluctuations in supply.  The supply of bitcoin is tightly regulated by its underlying algorithm, only releasing a few bitcoin each hour.  People can “mine” bitcoin by using specialized computers to solve highly complex mathematical equations, which verify and authenticate each bitcoin transaction.  Bitcoin is the reward for performing this service, a self-sustaining incentive helping maintain the integrity of the bitcoin system.

The mechanism for recording each bitcoin transaction is also very unique.  A financial institution or bank maintains a ledger of all their client’s transaction records, likely stored on a centralized computer server.  However, every single bitcoin transaction is stored publicly on a massive, decentralized, and continuously updating digital ledger – collectively known as the “blockchain.”  After each encrypted transaction is authenticated (in the “mining” process), the record of that transaction is added to a “block” – which is comprised of other authenticated transactions bundled together.  That “block” is then added to the end of the existing “chain.”

As the “blockchain” continues building upon itself, you can’t go back and edit blocks in the chain to alter previous transactions.[4]  Tampering with the blockchain is nearly impossible.  To alter the target transaction, you’d have to change every single transaction that followed as well.  

There are certainly some problems bitcoin’s facing (discussed in The Downside of Bitcoin), but regardless of its success or failure, “blockchain” technology has immense potential (discussed in The Future of Blockchain).

 

 

[1] Bitcoin Whitepaper, https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

[2] https://qz.com/1159188/bitcoin-price-approaches-20000-making-satoshi-nakamoto-worth-19-4-billion/

[3] https://www.coindesk.com/information/what-is-bitcoin/

[4] https://www.cnet.com/news/blockchain-explained-builds-trust-when-you-need-it-most/


New Ruling: Government Needs Warrant to Access Cell Phone Records

Keeping pace with technological changes, the Supreme Court ruled on June 22, 2018 that the government is now required to issue a warrant to obtain cell phone records containing cell phone tower location data, including other types of digital data that provides a detailed look at a person’s private life. However, the Court carved out specific exceptions, including bomb threats, child abductions, and other incidences when inaction could result in irreparable harm.  

The Fourth Amendment allows law enforcement to retrieve necessary records, including but not limited to, location data, cell phone records, bank records, etc. when probable cause is shown. The new ruling may slow down law enforcement’s capacity to turn over cases due to the new litigation required to access such records; however, the Court’s ruling is a significant victory for privacy rights advocates. Read more on the matter here.


How a Genealogy Company Helped Catch a Serial Killer

Police in California recently captured a serial killer that killed at least 12 people and raped dozens of women in the 1970s and 80s. Police were finally able to track him down using a genealogy website called GEDmatch. Users of GEDmatch can upload their results from companies like 23andme or Ancestry (which do the actual DNA sequencing) to locate distant relatives and create family trees. The police created a fake profile for the killer, uploaded his genetic profile and found a match with a female relative. After locating the man police believed was the killer, they waited outside his home to collect DNA from his trash. It is legal for police to surveil your house and take your garbage; you do not have Fourth Amendment protections from searches or seizures of trash that you leave on the curb. Once the DNA sample from the trash conclusively matched the DNA collected from a crime scene in the 1970s, police knew they had found the right person.

While it is undoubtedly a good thing this serial killer will be brought to justice, many have expressed concerns over the privacy and ethical issues these police tactics raise. In recent years DNA testing has become very popular for people to trace where their family originated. These services have also expanded to analyze DNA markers for particular diseases, or genetic traits showing susceptibility to certain types of cancer. However, it is unlikely that any of the consumers of these products envisioned that submitting their DNA would be used for their arrest or even a relative’s arrest. These companies and genealogists are worried that the police tactics and publicity from this case will scare people away from using these services in the future. 

However, the police acted within the law in this case. The website GEDmatch is a public, open-source site that anyone can use, so there is no reason law enforcement should be precluded from using it. Even though 23andme and Ancestry were not involved in this case, law enforcement could issue a subpoena or warrant to these companies to locate a suspect. Also, the FBI already has its nationwide DNA database that state and local law enforcement agencies use for investigations. After sequencing a DNA sample, police can upload it into this database for cross-referencing, to see if it matches someone already in the system.

It is foreseeable that law enforcement will continue to use methods like this to solve cold cases. Police are currently attempting to use the same method to identify the Zodiac Killer, another California serial killer case that has been cold for decades. There will always be privacy and ethical concerns when we willingly turn over our data to third parties. These companies may use data improperly, leave it insecure against hackers, or turn it over to law enforcement after receiving a subpoena or warrant. You may not be concerned about these companies or law enforcement having your DNA now, but it’s good to be mindful of how it may be used in the future.

  1. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/04/27/health/dna-privacy-golden-state-killer-genealogy.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur
  2. https://m.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/Use-of-DNA-in-serial-killer-probe-sparks-privacy-12868330.php
  3. https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/codis/codis-and-ndis-fact-sheet
  4. https://apnews.com/ac6bb05bbe754dbfbaa57e0cfef5a878

What’s Driving Uber’s Pursuit of Driverless Cars?

On March 18th, a self-driving Uber car being tested in Arizona killed a pedestrian. The autonomous Volvo SUV struck a woman crossing the street outside of the crosswalk. There was a driver behind the wheel, but the car was in autonomous mode at the time of the accident. Uber began testing their Volvo SUVs in Arizona in February of last year. Uber is also testing its autonomous fleet in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, and Phoenix. After this accident, Uber suspended the self-driving testing in all of these cities.

The economic potential that autonomous vehicles represent has triggered a high-stakes competition between Uber, Google, Apple, Tesla, and major car manufacturers. These massive companies are in a race to be the first to achieve true autonomy, and are throwing loads of money at solving the problem. The company that finds a solution first stands to gain a significant market advantage over everyone still catching up. Truly autonomous vehicles could wipe out the trucking industry, taxi industry, and delivery industry in one fell swoop. Full automation of the $719 billion trucking industry could result in labor cost savings of about $300 billion. Thus, there’s a huge economic incentive for eliminating human drivers.

This heated competition has triggered lawsuits. Google’s Waymo sued Uber, alleging theft of trade secrets. A week into trial, Waymo and Uber reached a settlement, but the lawsuit resulted in some dirty laundry being aired out. The discovery process revealed the internal communications of these companies, shedding light on the mindsets of top executives. A win-at-all-costs mentality and desperation about coming in second was evident between both companies. Emails between Uber executives revealed their desire to “take all the shortcuts we can” because they saw it as “a race we need to win, second place is the first loser.”

Between 2014-2016, about 37,000 people died in car crashes each year. Part of the push for driverless cars and trucks has been increased safety and fatality reduction. Proponents of autonomous vehicles argue that a computer will make far fewer errors than human drivers, considering computers will not get distracted by phones, get tired, get drunk, etc. However, the Waymo-Uber trial inadvertently revealed that Uber’s motivation lies in achieving market dominance.

Additional fatalities are likely to happen as this technology proliferates and becomes more common, but any PR spin from Uber about its commitment to safety may ring hollow due to the short-cut strategy endorsed by its executives. More importantly, Uber will face massive legal liability for wrongful deaths and injuries if plaintiffs show safety concerns were ignored in pursuit of winning the race.

Uber is fully aware of this potential liability. From a cynical perspective, it’s possible that Uber believes the profits they stand to gain from winning will dwarf wrongful death and personal injury losses by so much that shortcuts are worth it. Thus, paying for fatalities and injuries may just be a cost of doing business in Uber’s quest to dominate the autonomous car market.


Alexa and Uber Take the Stand: Your Data as a Witness

Silicon Valley’s amazing technology has made our lives easier. Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa can tell us the weather, play our favorite music on command, and add grocery items to our shopping lists. With the tap of a button, we can catch a ride using the Uber app. Countless other products offer similar conveniences and provide greater simplicity to our lives. However, this added convenience comes with strings attached.

By using these products, we generate vast amounts of data. These giant tech companies store that information to improve their products (and their targeted advertising). This data is increasingly entering the crosshairs of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes. By putting enough pieces of your digital footprint together, law enforcement can generate a pretty complete picture of a person’s life.

Law enforcement is relying more and more on digital evidence because of how enlightening (or incriminating) this information can be. Warrants for a cell phone search are commonplace in today’s world, but as Silicon Valley develops newer products, law enforcement sees additional opportunities to gather evidence.

Recently, police in Arkansas turned their sights on an Amazon Echo smart speaker found in a murder suspect’s home. The Amazon Echo has a built-in microphone that is always listening, waiting for the user to issue a command. According to Amazon, the speaker only starts recording once it hears “Alexa.” Amazon stores the recorded commands or questions that follow in a database to improve its voice-recognition accuracy.

Police issued Amazon a search warrant for any data the speaker may have recorded on the night of the murder. Since a judge signed off on the warrant, Amazon became the last line of defense against turning over the data. Amazon refused to grant the request, citing the privacy concerns of its customers.

The murder suspect ultimately granted Amazon his consent to provide the data, moving the resolution of this legal showdown to another day. While Amazon was likely more concerned about future customer’s fear of losing their privacy, the takeaway is that this data may be easily obtainable if the company possessing it complies with the request.

The focus of this case was past data already recorded and stored, but something to consider is the possibility of tapping into the Amazon Echo’s microphone in real time. Law enforcement can obtain judicial authorization for a wiretap of a suspect’s electronic communications. Any internet-connected smart device with a microphone can theoretically be remotely activated without the user knowing, creating a bugging device. On a scarier note, hackers have demonstrated the ability to do this with ease. The average citizen probably has nothing to worry about, but public figures, politicians, journalists, etc. may want to weigh whether the convenience of these devices is worth the privacy risks they pose.

Another recent target of law enforcement has been data generated by Uber riders and drivers. Just as in the Amazon case, a judge approved the subpoena for these records. The likely trend will be that judges grant these requests with regularity. One can imagine these records being requested in a divorce or custody proceeding, revealing a spouse’s habitual Uber rides from the bar or to his or her paramour’s house.

Technology will continue to progress and tech companies will continue to vacuum up more and more data about our daily lives. It’s possible we may never be able to delete that data, or only with varying degrees of difficulty. When enjoying the conveniences of Silicon Valley technology, it must always be assumed a detailed trail will be left behind.

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