Can blockchain disrupt the legal industry?

30 Mar 2017

Ulster University. Image: William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the launch of the Legal Innovation Centre at Ulster University, TechWatch’s Emily McDaid sat down with cybersecurity expert Kevin Curran to discuss blockchain.

Last month, Ulster University (UU) began a new chapter in its history with the debut of the Legal Innovation Centre, 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 that the path to new invention isn’t fraught with legal delays.

Kevin Curran is a cybersecurity expert who has been lecturing at UU’s Magee campus for the past 17 years.

Curran 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 shake up 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 or sold, and payment can only take place if two of the three players authenticate it,” explained Curran.

“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 Curran.


Prof Kevin Curran, School of Computing and Intelligent Systems, Ulster University. Image: TechWatch

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

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 [Digital Rights Management] 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.

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.

What kind of research projects are you actively involved in?

  • A DNA fingerprint that can identify when an IP request is rerouted 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. 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.

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.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

Ulster University. Image: William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland