The name Equifax may have vaguely crossed your consciousness these last few days, as you scanned headlines of the hack of a huge amount of data from a US-based credit reporting company. But the consequences are more wide-ranging, including in the UK.
First, Equifax holds data on UK citizens. After being pressed by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the company announced that it holds data on the staggering figure of more than 44 million UK citizens, which is more than two-thirds of our population. It uses this information, among other things, to help companies with marketing campaigns. The ICO also wanted to know how many UK citizens had been affected by the hack. A few days ago, Equifax announced a figure of 400,000 people here. These are individuals, not businesses or institutions.
The ICO immediately put out a statement saying that its investigations are continuing, and alerting people to check their financial statements for unusual activity, and to be vigilant about unsolicited contacts.
But the possible effect on our clients is not the most important consequence of this saga for lawyers. I hesitate to give more publicity to someone who has already proved himself capable of generating global headlines for every cough and sneeze, but the chatbot maestro, Joshua Browder, announced that his DoNotPay chatbot was now available for small claims in negligence against Equifax in every US state for the data breach, and he is bringing the same service to the UK within a few weeks.
Browder was apparently himself a victim of the hack – which is not surprising since the hack also compromised confidential information of 143 million Americans (he lives in the US). His unhappiness with Equifax is, therefore, understandable. He is obviously not the only one who is unhappy - over 20 class actions have already been launched against the company.
But in his statement to a media outlet, Browder took aim also at lawyers: ‘It is particularly exciting that a lawyer is never needed in the process. The class action lawsuit against the company will only give successful consumers around $500 (with the rest going to greedy lawyers in commissions). I hope that my product will replace those lawyers, and, with enough success, bankrupt Equifax.’
So now we know it. This may be the first time, or among the first times, when a mass incident causes not only class actions, and competition among lawyers to get in on the action of those, but triggers competition between lawyers and a chatbot. The vast publicity generated by Mr Browder, to which I regret adding, together with the cost-effectiveness of his service, gives him an edge. When artificial intelligence improves chatbots by widening the scope of the interchange between client and chatbot, the consequences seem obvious. The landscape has changed.
I am pleased to see that a review of Browder’s Equifax product has now appeared on the specialist site, TechCrunch. In summary, it dismisses Browder’s Napoleonic assertions, pointing out that:
- the chatbot merely asks clients to add their personal information to a pre-populated form, but the filing, fee payment and court appearance will then be up to the client on his or her own;
- the court will doubtless need documentary evidence of the hack and actual damages suffered, which the chatbot does not help with;
- the chatbot form immediately populates the form with a claim for the maximum damages, but that may not be appropriate in a particular circumstance;
- Equifax may ask for the claim to be transferred from the small claims court to a state or federal court, and then the chatbot will be of no further use; and
- by bringing a small claim on your own, you might jeopardise your chance to participate in a class action.
TechCrunch’s conclusion is damning: ‘the initial claims of legal automation he set forth are extremely misleading …The most one can say is that if you were already planning to file a small claims suit, this could save you a little time. But it fails to account for anything but the initial pre-filing process and could hang its users out to dry as a result’.
In the long run, it does not matter whether this anti-Equifax chatbot is any good. The next one for the next mass incident will be better. And the addition of artificial intelligence in due course will turn chatbots into market conquerors. There are vast questions for lawyers as to how we respond – obviously, doing better in highlighting the complexities of cases such as these, and, equally obviously, developing our own legal chatbots.
But in order to succeed in the new landscape, there needs to be more: a revolution in our training, organisation and mindset for the delivery of legal services.
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Law Society Council.