Can blockchain disrupt the legal industry? Ulster University professor, instrumental in new Legal Innovation Centre, shares thoughts

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  • By Emily McDaid, TechWatch
    Techwatch is brought to you by Connect at Catalyst Inc

    Ulster University recently began a new chapter in its history with the Legal Innovation Centre debut, where legal professionals and students can collaborate with computer scientists on areas where the professions overlap. The role of lawyers, as impressed upon attendees at the launch, is not to stifle innovation but rather to speed it up and ensure the path to new invention isn’t fraught with legal delays.

    At the launch of the Centre, located at the School of Art, I sat down with Kevin Curran from the Faculty of Computing and Engineering.

    Kevin is a cyber security expert whose on-going projects are detailed below. He’s been lecturing at Ulster University’s Magee campus for the past 17 years.

    Kevin is also perhaps one of the most experienced INVENT veterans, as a six-time finalist of the competition. He spoke to me about innovations in blockchain and how it could shakeup the legal industry.

    “The most successful application of blockchain has been Bitcoin, and it can be used in areas of law like mediation, for instance when a car is being bought/sold, and payment can only take place if two of the three players authenticate it,” said Kevin. “Contracts can be decentralised, and enable you to see who the previous owners of something were.”

    But he challenged whether blockchain is a totally mature concept.

    “The main problem is that people rush in to say blockchain can disrupt industries, ignoring the question of incentivisation, which is so critical. Bitcoin had a clear business case. It’s not clear how to incentivise blockchain in other domains including law transactions,” noted Kevin.

    Does that mean you’re cynical about whether law firms think it can drive efficiencies?

    Kevin said, “It’s early days, I think it will only succeed in niche areas. eBay and PayPal are the most successful roll-outs of group authentication.”

    In the scenario of signing contracts, does blockchain enable you to cut out the middleman? Do lawyers need to worry?

    “Music is one example, where DRM recorded as part of the blockchain means that payments can find their way back to the correct artist or author of the content. But you still need the agreement of the media giants,” Kevin said.

    “It’s also important to consider who controls the blockchain. It’s whoever controls the computers authenticating the blockchain.”

    Does blockchain have privacy implications that could impact the legal industry?

    “One of the beauties of the blockchain is that you can use anonymous ID. You’re generally anonymous using it. A number of individuals do need to verify ID, but at no point do you need to release your real name,” said Kevin.

    What kind of research projects are you actively involved in?

    Kevin outlined two of his on-going research projects:

    A DNA fingerprint that can identify when an IP request is re-routed through a proxy, as opposed to coming from a genuine IP machine. This project uses machine learning to rapidly review IP packets and determine their source
    Symmetric search encryption. Kevin explains, “The cloud is so useful and so good for companies, but for the legal profession and other areas, security of data held in the cloud is a huge concern. Many times when data is uploaded to the cloud you get a key. We’re working on a way for the author to retain the keys to that data – with no one else having copies of the keys – so the data is totally protected.”
    I ended our discussion by asking Kevin which projects at the Legal Innovation Centre may incorporate blockchain.

    “I believe we’ll incorporate it in many projects. For instance, the verification of facts in prospectuses using artificial intelligence or machine learning to assist legal teams,” he said.

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