Legal Apps – A Double Edged Sword

There is an immediate need in our community to disseminate legal knowledge without the exorbitant price tag attached. To respond to this gap, there has been an influx of new legal apps in the Canadian market. While these services serve the much needed goal of providing access-to-justice to consumers by offloading the financial burden, researchers shed light on the serious privacy concerns that form the adverse side of such innovative technology.

A team of researchers from the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law assessed legal apps from a privacy lens and compiled guidelines to subvert the confidentiality issues that arise when using such apps [1]. While many mobile apps are susceptible to weak privacy protection barriers, the researchers flag legal tech to be at the forefront of these issues. Many of these apps collect highly sensitive personal information in order to provide assistance, with little attention to safeguarding the privacy of its user from unauthorized third-party collection, or without due attention to the compliance with privacy laws.

Additionally, consumers are often not made aware that while lawyers may design these apps, the confidential information shared on these apps are not protected by solicitor-client privilege. This privilege, while sacrosanct between a client and their lawyer, does not extend to algorithms.

Many of these apps are developed by legal professionals or students with the intent of solving socio-legal issues, but who often lack the requisite computer science know-how to truly build in adequate privacy measures. A number of these apps are not monetized initially and therefore not under the purview of governing privacy legislation. As such, the authors found that at the inception stage of many apps, there is little awareness or implementation of legislation such as PIPEDA.

The authors warn consumers about freely sharing private information on such apps without conducting proper due diligence with respect to the security measures available. The authors advise the legal community participating in the legal-tech sphere to contemplate the importance of adhering to and implementing privacy guidelines at the design stage of building legal apps.

While legal apps are essential in bridging the access-to-justice needs in our community, it is important to engage in these projects with the ultimate goal of protecting the identity and information of its users. If privacy measures are only contemplated at the commercialization stage, it is already too late.

[1] Teresa Scassa, Amy Salyzyn, Jena McGill and Suzanne Bouclin, Developing Privacy Best Practices for Direct-to-Public Legal Apps: Observations and Lessons Learned. (2020) 18:1 Canadian Journal of Law and Technology.