Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic Serves BU and MIT Students

LAW offers pro bono help for cutting-edge entrepreneurs

Source: bu.edu/today   Author: Joel Brown

In a School of Law seminar room, Andrew Sellars makes an object lesson of three MIT students who hacked MBTA computers back in 2008.

“They discovered a vulnerability in the Charlie Ticket system,” says Sellars, a clinical instructor and director of the School of Law’s new BU/MIT Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic. “If you knew how to edit the magnetic information on the ticket, which computer science people do, you could change the value to be whatever you wanted it to be. ‘I’d like this ticket to be $1,000, thank you.’”

The MIT students considered themselves honorable white-hat hackers, helping to find weaknesses in the system, but they also planned to share their findings at a major hackers’ conference in Las Vegas, promoting the event online with the provocative come-on, “Want free subway rides for life?”

“They were not talking to the BU/MIT Cyberlaw Clinic,” someone mutters, to laughter from the rest of the class.

The clinic, which opened in September, is a full-year, six-credit program consisting of a weekly 2-hour seminar and 10 hours of fieldwork that includes weekly office hours at MIT. The eight law students in the clinic offer free legal advice and research to MIT and BU students involved in technological pursuits, from building apps to the kind of cybersecurity exploration that found the Charlie Ticket problem. The clinic’s job, Sellars says, is to help those students make good decisions from the beginning, while providing cutting-edge work experience for the law students.

The new clinic joins the year-old Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property Clinic, another BU and MIT partnership, which deals with topics such as partnership and shareholder agreements, tax structures, and fair-use restrictions. That clinic is run by Gerard O’Connor, a LAW clinical instructor.

As Sellars tells it, both programs were planned when MIT reached out to the School of Law after several legal cases led students there (and faculty on their behalf) to ask for more legal support. “They said, ‘You’re telling us to go out there and be creative and do interesting things, but you can’t represent us if we run into trouble.’”

Transportation officials, of course, didn’t see the hackers’ white hats. They saw trouble, and they came down hard in court, winning a last-minute injunction to cancel the high-profile conference presentation and asking for a monthslong gag order. Eventually everyone calmed down, the hackers shared their knowledge with the T, and the Charlie Ticket vulnerability was fixed. But there was Monday morning quarterbacking to do on both sides, Sellars says, especially for the students. “There was a time when they could have gone to the MBTA and said, ‘We’re willing to talk to you and share this information, so you have time to fix it before we present.’”

“I think the law school community is waking up to the reality of how important it is to teach this stuff to lawyers,” says Tavish Brown (LAW’17). “But I think it’s a values question; that’s why I’m here. Privacy, freedom of information and speech, those are things I care a lot about. All of society is being restructured right now with the advent of technology.”

Sellars is there to step in when a practicing lawyer is needed. And if a case gets to court, he says, they’ll likely bring in an outside law firm that can devote the resources needed.

“The clinic does a really good job balancing intellectual pursuits with actually learning about the law and also dealing with clients,” says Irina Finkel (LAW’17). “We’re experiencing clients for the first time, they’re experiencing lawyers for the first time, and it’s kind of a nice level playing field.”

Irina Finkel (LAW’17)

“The clinic does a really good job balancing intellectual pursuits with actually learning about the law and also dealing with clients,” says Irina Finkel (LAW’17).

Nothing quite as dramatic as the MBTA case has yet come up, and most current clients are reluctant to talk for a variety of reasons, including protecting their proprietary ideas—and the attorney-client privilege provided by Sellars’ presence.

One client willing to speak is MIT junior Caroline Mak, a founder of votemate.us, an online voter registration platform aimed at students. The site allows users to check if they are registered to vote, and to register if they are not, and running the site requires full knowledge of election laws, as well as permission to interact with a variety of state and other websites. The founders learned about the clinic from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program, which had given the start-up $5,000.

“We were really uncertain,” says Mak. “This is the real world; it’s not like we were in an incubator or an MIT hackathon. Having someone say, ‘We will represent you if there’s an issue,’ was definitely a safeguard for us to say we can try this. And to have someone say, ‘Hey, this is OK, but maybe do this also just to be safe,’ was really reassuring.”

It was also free, saving considerable legal bills for Votemate, which helped tens of thousands of voters before registration for the November election closed.

The law students say their clinic experience will have a wide variety of future applications, given the way data issues permeate the world we live in. “Every single activity at some point is going to involve technology and cyberlaw,” says Brown. “I think if you don’t have a basis in that, you’re not going to be very successful as a counselor in the 21st century.”

Gabriella Andriulli (LAW’17) has been deeply involved in health care law. “At the beginning of law school I would have looked at this and said it’s really fascinating, but I don’t see the connection to me,” she says. “Then I began to see the tremendous overlap between data security and privacy and health care law.”

In the long run, Sellars expects more student clients from BU, including from the Questrom School of Business BUzz Lab, home to BU entrepreneurship programs, student clubs, and student and alumni start-ups, but most of the dozen they’ve worked with so far have been from MIT.

Thanks to technology, “students are now capable of synthesizing biological agents from scratch, they’re capable of sending objects into space,” he says. “They are capable of a lot, and it gets tricky to know how you navigate all these issues. It’s fun to come in, because we truly do not know what is going to come up next. What is an experiment in a dorm today could be a business tomorrow.”