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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.

Information overload is defined by Wikipedia as “the difficulty in understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue” – although, ironically, it offers alternative definitions based on multiple sources!

Airbnb has been a phenomenal success since it was launched just over a decade ago, arguably creating more choice for travellers seeking accommodation while providing a user friendly platform which allows homeowners to rent out a spare room easily. However, it has also faced mounting criticism from various quarters: city officials claim that investors snap up rental properties to add to their Airbnb portfolio, making it more difficult for local residents to find homes to rent; neighbours often complain that Airbnb properties are continuously let out to noisy tourists in residential areas; and hoteliers and regulators argue that Airbnb simply offers a way for unscrupulous businesses to act as hotels whilst avoiding the overheads or regulation.

Internet regulation has been very much in the public eye lately, particularly following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the government recently published its Online Harms White Paper which seeks to address some of the concerns surrounding the ‘Wild West Web’. One of the key issues regularly raised is the protection of children from exposure to online pornography.

The debate around workplace monitoring of employees has rumbled on for many years now; employers argue that they are entitled to analyse how their staff spend their working day whilst employees claim it impacts upon their privacy. In 2017 the European Court of Human Rights held, in the case of Bărbulescu v Romania, that the actions of an employer in monitoring the instant messaging accounts of an employee breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But this hasn’t dissuaded some businesses from moving to ever more extreme forms of surveillance; microchipping has already happened in the UK and Amazon has filed patent applications on a warehouse productivity bracelet.

The Government published its Online Harms White Paper on 8 April 2019. The consultation, which is open until 1 July 2019, sets out proposals to reduce illegal and harmful online activity. The harms in scope include:

  • harassment and cyberbullying;
  • hate crime and incitement of violence;
  • terrorism, extremist and violent content;
  • revenge/extreme porn, child sexual exploitation and “sexting” by under-18s;
  • organised immigration crime and modern slavery;
  • encouraging or assisting suicide, self-harm and FGM;
  • coercive behaviour and intimidation;
  • sale of illegal goods (weapons, illegal drugs etc) and illegal uploading of content from prisons;
  • disinformation (fake news); and
  • underage exposure to pornography (this is separately being tackled by the heavily delayed age check scheme, now due to come into force on 15 July 2019).

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.