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Alex Heshmaty

Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting agency based in Bristol.

A recent major IT failure on the Ministry of Justice network, which reportedly led to the disruption of thousands of cases, highlighted how reliant courts already are upon technology. Commenting in the wake of the fallout, Richard Atkins QC, the chair of the Bar Council, noted that “it illustrates how vulnerable the delivery of justice is with reliance on weak IT systems in our courts.” Although HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has big plans for online justice beyond the physical courtroom, it is worth first considering the various technologies currently being used by the courts.

Twitter is the social media platform of choice for journalists, free speech campaigners, Russian trolls and American presidents. On the social media spectrum of formality, it sits somewhere in between professional networking colossus LinkedIn and lolcat empire Facebook.

Twitter is essentially a “social” messaging service which enables you to maintain a minimalist profile, broadcast short “tweets” to your followers and view and respond to tweets of those you choose to follow, which are displayed in your “timeline”. It’s deceptively simple but at the same time somewhat of an enigma.

There are important differences that distinguish Twitter from Facebook and LinkedIn and give it its distinctive “personality”.

LinkedIn, acquired by Microsoft in 2016, has over 250 million active monthly users and, according to research from Attorney at Work, it is the most popular social media channel in the US legal sector, used by over 90 per cent of lawyers and forming part of the overall marketing strategy in around 70 per cent of firms. It is likely that these statistics broadly translate to the UK. LinkedIn’s popularity has increased within legal circles over recent years, with Brian Inkster, founder of Inksters citing its better rates of engagement: “I used to think LinkedIn was deadly boring compared to Twitter (which was my social media channel of choice). However, over the past year or two my views have changed. If I post a similar item on LinkedIn and Twitter it invariably gets more interaction and usually much more detailed comments on LinkedIn than on Twitter.”

There are many different facets to an Orwellian dystopian society (in which, some may argue, we already live) where privacy no longer exists and Big Brother is watching everyone. Some of the culprits are data mining and tracking used by the tech giants for profiling internet denizens in order to realise lucrative profits from highly targeted advertising which we covered in the July issue of the Newsletter.

But although the erosion of privacy by big business is a major concern – especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and allegations of Russian interference in elections – the most acute fears have traditionally centred on government surveillance. So what are the main pieces of legislation in the UK which relate to government surveillance?

With our lives increasingly documented online – whether this takes the form of professional personas on LinkedIn, personal updates on Facebook, political views on Twitter, selfies on Instagram or damning reviews on forums – it has become virtually impossible to forget our past. Younger generations are sometimes publishing (either purposefully or inadvertently) their every thought, picture or video for the internet to archive in perpetuity.

Although users of social media and cloud storage services may think they are in control of their data, anything which becomes publicly visible is often quickly indexed by search robots. Once any content has been ranked on Google (or other search engines), it is often difficult to later remove this content from search results. Even if a social media account is later deleted, copies of any posted content may be stored by archive engines, making the removal process even more complicated.

This situation has led to much debate over the so-called “right to be forgotten” with ensuing case law and legislation attempting to grapple with the issue.

“Big Brother is Watching You” ― George Orwell, 1984

Although he wrote his dystopian masterpiece even before ARPANET was a twinkle in the eye of the US Department of Defense, Orwell described the essence of a society in which words, actions and even thoughts are constantly monitored. In 2018, the society he described is no longer fiction: GPS and smartphone apps track our location, Alexa sits in our homes listening to our private conversations, Google knows what we are thinking sometimes even before we do, and we feed Facebook a constant stream of personal data to enable advertisers to sell us stuff we don’t need or persuade us to vote a certain way.

Data is the new oil and most businesses now obsessively gather information on their customers, employees, website visitors and anyone else they come into contact with. Some of this Big Data is useful – either to the business or their users – but much of it is simply collected and stored (this is known as Dark Data). But although the EU has attempted to safeguard the privacy rights of its citizens with the GDPR, and privacy campaigners such as Max Schrems have made inroads to challenging the collection of data by Silicon Valley, the vast majority of people still willingly (or unknowingly) trade their personal data in exchange for a multitude of internet services.

Although much of this raw data is valuable in its own right, organisations which can find the links between different data silos, and effectively see how an individual navigates the internet and conducts their life, ends up with refined – and far more valuable – data. The way to link all the pieces of individual data and create a data trail is through the use of tracking.

Cryptocurrencies are a form of decentralised digital currency based on principles of cryptography. They use blockchain technology which is essentially a cryptographically secured method of recording data transactions which cannot be altered retroactively (see What is the blockchain?). Complicated mathematical equations need to be solved in order to generate each unit of the currencies, a process known as crypto-mining.

Facebook likeFacebook is the grandaddy of social media. Founded in 2004, it is by no means the oldest service, but by a huge margin it is the largest, boasting in excess of two billion users worldwide. Although it is used primarily for personal networking purposes, documenting the lives and thoughts of its users to help them keep in touch with family and friends, it is also a highly effective business marketing platform.

Data security breach by Blogtrepreneur

Cybercrime has dominated the global headlines over recent years, with the NHS suffering a huge ransomware attack, allegations of Russian hacking affecting the American elections and the confidential data of 143 million people being breached after credit ratings company Equifax was hacked. According to Lloyd’s of London a “serious” cyberattack could cost the global economy almost £100 billion.

With the spectre of GDPR looming, law firms will be increasingly called upon by their clients to help them grapple with data protection compliance and understand their obligations surrounding cybersecurity. But legal practices will also need to ensure their own IT infrastructure is secure; as they often hold valuable and sensitive client data, firms can pose a target for cybercriminals. So what are the main types of cyberattack for which firms should be prepared, and how can these be prevented?

AI conversation

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a very broad term, covering everything from relatively simple document automation techniques right through to Stanley Kubrick’s HAL

For purposes of this article, we will consider AI to mean the current application of “intelligent” technologies to provide a solution to a problem, as opposed to a free thinking machine. In this sense, AI consists of concepts such as machine learning and natural language processing (NLP); generally computer programs which can either be trained to perform routine tasks or which interact with humans in a more natural way. AI tools may help to:

  • automate routine tasks;
  • manage and analyse vast quantities of data (Big Data);
  • spot discrepancies in data to aid compliance;
  • interpret natural language queries and sift through data to provide relevant answers (eg chatbots);
  • predict future outcomes based on patterns from past data.

Hacker Firewall by Christoph Scholz

Encryption is a way of making data secure, so that it can only be accessed by authorised parties. Cryptographic techniques are used to render information unintelligible to any third parties whilst it is being stored on an electronic device such as a laptop or smartphone, or during its transit from sender to recipient over the internet or other types of computer network.

There are many techniques of encryption but the main principles are as follows:

  • Unencrypted data is referred to as “plaintext”.
  • Plaintext is encrypted using an algorithm known as a “cipher”.
  • The algorithm also generates a pseudo-random encryption “key”.
  • Once plaintext has been encrypted it is known as “ciphertext”.
  • The ciphertext is unreadable and can only be deciphered (ie converted back to plaintext) with the symmetric (private) or asymmetric (public) key which was previously generated by the algorithm.
  • End to end encryption means that data which passes through a company’s servers (eg WhatsApp) can only be read by the sender and recipient and cannot be accessed or interfered with by the company handling the data.

Hologram 08 by Ian Truelove

The development of the internet has gradually shifted many aspects of modern life from the real, tangible world to a virtual, digital domain: music, films and books are stored in the cloud, social lives are conducted online and bank accounts are managed with apps. As we move towards an increasingly online existence, this raises the question of what happens to all our digital assets and personal data once we die and how these “digital legacies” can be bequeathed.