Artificial intelligence doesn’t equal artificial perfection. I have argued for a while now both on this blog and in a forthcoming law review article here that lawyers (and the investigators who work for them) have little to fear and much to gain as artificial intelligence gets smarter.

Computers may be able to do a lot more than they used to, but there is so much more information for them to sort through that humans will long be required to pick through the results just as they are now. Right now, we have no quick way to word-search the billions of hours of YouTube videos and podcasts, but that time is coming soon.

The key point is that some AI programs will work better than others, but even the best ones will make mistakes or will only get us so far.

So argues British math professor Hannah Fry in a new book previewed in her recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, here. Fry argues that instead of having blind faith in algorithms and artificial intelligence, the best applications are the ones that we admit work somewhat well but are not perfect, and that require collaboration with human beings.

That’s collaboration, not simply implementation. Who has not been infuriated at the hands of some company, only to complain and be told, “that’s what the computer’s telling me.”

The fault may be less with the computer program than with the dumb company that doesn’t empower its people to work with and override computers that make mistakes at the expense of their customers.

Fry writes that some algorithms do great things – diagnose cancer, catch serial killers and avoid plane crashes. But, beware the modern snake-oil salesman:

Despite a lack of scientific evidence to support such claims, companies are selling algorithms to police forces and governments that can supposedly ‘predict’ whether someone is a terrorist, or a pedophile based on his or her facial characteristics alone. Others insist their algorithms can suggest a change to a single line of a screenplay that will make the movie more profitable at the box office. Matchmaking services insist their algorithm will locate your one true love.

As importantly for lawyers worried about losing their jobs, think about the successful AI applications above. Are we worried that oncologists, homicide detectives and air traffic controllers are endangered occupations? Until there is a cure for cancer, we are not.

We just think these people will be able to do their jobs better with the help of AI.

We’ve had a great response to an Above the Law op-ed here that outlined the kinds of skills lawyers will need as artificial intelligence increases its foothold in law firms.

The piece makes clear that without the right kinds of skills, many of the benefits of AI will be lost on law firms because you still need an engaged human brain to ask the computer the right questions and to analyze the results.

But too much passivity in the use of AI is not only inefficient. It also carries the risk of ethical violations. Once you deploy anything in the aid of a client, New York legal ethics guru Roy Simon says you need to ask,

“Has your firm designated a person (whether lawyer or nonlawyer) to vet, test or evaluate the AI products (and technology products generally) before using them to serve clients?”

We’ve written before about ABA Model Rule 5.3 that requires lawyers to supervise the investigators they hire (and “supervise” means more than saying “don’t break any rules” and then waiting for the results to roll in). See The Weinstein Saga: Now Featuring Lying Investigators, Duplicitous Journalists, Sloppy Lawyers.

But Rule 5.3 also pertains to supervising your IT department. It’s not enough to have some sales person convince you to buy new software (AI gets called software once we start using it). The lawyer or the firm paying for it should do more than rely on claims by the vendor.

Simon told a recent conference that you don’t have to understand the code or algorithms behind the product (just as you don’t have to know every feature of Word or Excel), but you do need to know what the limits of the product are and what can go wrong (especially how to protect confidential information).

In addition to leaking information it shouldn’t, what kinds of things are there to learn about how a program works that could have an impact on the quality of the work you do with it?

  • AI can be biased: Software works based on the assumptions of those who program it. You can never get a read in advance of what a program’s biases may do to output until you use the program. Far more advanced than the old saying “garbage in-garbage out,” but a related concept: there are thousands of decisions a computer needs to make based on definitions a person inserts either before the thing comes out of the box or during the machine-learning process where people refine results with new, corrective inputs.
  • Competing AI programs can do some things better than others. Which programs are best for Task X and which for Task Y? No salesperson will give you the complete answer. You learn by trying.
  • Control group testing can be very valuable. Ask someone at your firm to do a search for which you know the results and see how easy it is for them to come up with the results you know you should see. If the results they come up with are wrong, you may have a problem with the person, with the program, or both.

The person who should not be leading this portion the training is the sales representative of the software vendor. Someone competent at the law firm needs to do it, and if they are not a lawyer then a lawyer needs to be up on what’s happening.

[For more on our thoughts on AI, see the draft of my paper for the Savannah Law Review, Legal Jobs in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Moving from Today’s Limited Universe of Data Toward the Great Beyond, available here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3085263].

 

Lawyers need to find witnesses. They look for assets to see if it’s worth suing or if they can collect after they win. They want to profile opponents for weaknesses based on past litigation or business dealings.

Every legal matter turns on facts. Most cases don’t go to trial, fewer still go to appeal, but all need good facts. Without decent facts, they face dismissal or don’t even get to the complaint stage.Better innovation in law firms

Do law schools teach any of these skills? Ninety-nine percent do not.  Good fact-finding requires something not taught at a lot of law schools: innovation and creativity. Of course, good judges can maneuver the law through creative decisions, and good lawyers are rightly praised for creative ways to interpret a regulation or to structure a deal.

But when it comes to fact gathering, the idea for most lawyers seems to be that you can assign uncreative, non-innovative people to plug data into Google, Westlaw or Lexis, and out will come the data you need.

This is incorrect, as anyone with a complex matter who has tried just Googling and Westlaw research will tell you.

The innovative, creative fact finder follows these three rules:

  1. Free Yourself from Database Dependency. If there were a secret trove of legally obtained information, you would be able to buy it because this is America, where good products get packaged and sold if there is sufficient demand for them. And Google won’t do it all. Most documents in the U.S. are not on line, so Google won’t help you. For any given person, there could be documents sitting in one of the more than 3,000 counties in this country, in paper form.
  • If you use a database, do you know how to verify the output? Is your John C. Wong the same John C. Wong who got sued in Los Angeles? How will you tell the difference? You need a battle plan. Can your researcher arrange to have someone go into a courthouse 2,000 miles away from your office?
  • How will you cope with conflicting results when one source says John C. Wong set up three Delaware LLC’s last year, and another says he set up two in Delaware and two in New York?
  1. Fight Confirmation Bias. Ask, “What am I not seeing?” Computers are terrible at the kind of thought that comes naturally to people. No risk management program said about Bernard Madoff, “His auditor can’t be up to the task because his office is in a strip mall in the suburbs.”
  • For your researchers, find people who can put themselves in the shoes of those they are investigating. Not everyone can say, “This report must be wrong. If I were in the high-end jewelry business, I wouldn’t run it out of a tiny ranch house in Idaho. Either this is a small business or Idaho’s not the real HQ.” If someone doesn’t notice a discrepancy as glaring as this, they are the wrong person to be doing an investigation that requires open-mindedness.
  1. Don’t paint by numbers. Begin an investigation on a clean sheet of paper. Don’t base your investigation on what someone’s resume says he did. Verify the whole thing.
  • Look not just at what’s on the resume, but look for what was left off Jobs that didn’t go well, and people who don’t like the person.
  • Despite that your client tells you, they don’t know everything (if they did they wouldn’t hire you). If your client thinks you will never find a subject’s assets outside of Texas, look outside of Texas anyway. You owe it to your client.

Want to know more?

  • Visit charlesgriffinllc.com and see our two blogs, The Ethical Investigator and the Divorce Asset Hunter;
  • Look at my book, The Art of Fact Investigation (available in free preview for Kindle at Amazon);
  • Watch me speak about Helping Lawyers with Fact Finding, here.

What to do when the databases you rely on start stripping out the very data you are paying for?Due diligence databases

Word in today’s Wall Street Journal that the main credit reporting firms will be removing many civil judgments and tax liens from credit reports prompts us to restate one our core beliefs:

Not only do databases routinely mix people up, they are far from complete in the information they contain.

Now, they will be even farther away from complete, because in order to list adverse information the credit reporting companies want several identifiers on each piece of information before they include it in a credit report. Even if there is only one person in the United States with a particular name, if his address and Social Security number are not included in a court filing against him, that filing may never make it onto his report. From what we’ve seen, there are almost no SSN’s in most of the filings we review.

As a result of this new policy, the credit scores of a lot of people are about to go up, says the Journal.

To answer the question posed at the top of this posting: what you do is you go after the information yourself. You (or a competent pro you hire) looks at databases and courthouse records for liens, litigation and other information people use every day to evaluate prospective associates, counterparties and debtors. If there’s enough money at stake, you may want to conduct interviews, not only with references but with people not on the resume.

The idea that databases are missing a lot is old news to anyone who stops to take a careful look.

The next time you are searching in a paid database, you may notice a little question mark somewhere around the box where you enter your search terms. Click on that and prepare to be shocked.

“Nationwide” coverage of marriage licenses may include only a handful of states, because such licenses are not public information in many jurisdictions. In other cases, the information is public but the database doesn’t include it because it’s too expensive to gather data that has not been scanned and stored electronically.

Of course, sending someone to a courthouse costs more than a few clicks performed while sitting at your desk. But does it cost more than lending to the wrong person who defaulted on a big loan six months ago?

Want to know more?

  • Visit charlesgriffinllc.com and see our two blogs, The Ethical Investigator and the Divorce Asset Hunter;
  • Look at my book, The Art of Fact Investigation (available in free preview for Kindle at Amazon);
  • Watch me speak about Helping Lawyers with Fact Finding, here.

What will it take for artificial intelligence to surpass us humans? After the Oscars fiasco last night, it doesn’t look like much.

As a person who thinks a lot about the power of human thought versus that of machines, what is striking is not that the mix-up of the Best Picture award was the product of one person’s error, but rather the screw-ups of four people who flubbed what is about the easiest job there is to imagine in show business.

Not one, but two PwC partners messed up with the envelope. You would think that if they had duplicates, it would be pretty clear whose job it was to give out the envelopes to the presenters. Something like, “you give them out and my set will be the backup.” But that didn’t seem to be what happened.

Then you have the compounded errors of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, both of whom can read and simply read off what was obviously the wrong card.

The line we always hear about not being afraid that computers are taking over the world is that human beings will always be there to turn them off if necessary. Afraid of driverless cars? Don’t worry; you can always take over if the car is getting ready to carry you off a cliff.

An asset search for Bill Johnson that reveals he’s worth $200 million, when he emerged from Chapter 7 bankruptcy just 15 months ago? A human being can look at the results and conclude the computer mixed up our Bill Johnson with the tycoon of the same name.

But what if the person who wants to override the driverless car is drunk? What if the person on the Bill Johnson case is a dimwit who just passes on these improbable findings without further inquiry? Then, the best computer programming we have is only as good as the dumbest person overseeing it.

We’ve written extensively here about the value of the human brain in doing investigations. It’s the theme of my book, The Art of Fact Investigation.

As the Oscars demonstrated last night, not just any human brain will do.

Want to know more?

  • Visit charlesgriffinllc.com and see our two blogs, The Ethical Investigator and the Divorce Asset Hunter;
  • Look at my book, The Art of Fact Investigation (available in free preview for Kindle at Amazon);
  • Watch me speak about Helping Lawyers with Fact Finding, here.

A story in the Wall Street Journal Google Uses Its Search Engine to Hawk Its Products serves as a useful reminder for something we tell clients all the time: Google is there to make money, and if your ideal search result won’t make them money, you may get a less-than-useful result.

Dollar sign filled with an electronic circuit. Blue background.

Google is an indispensable tool when searching for facts, but Google is not a disinterested party, like a good reference librarian. Google is in business to make money.

The story reports that Google buys some of its own ads, so when you search for a particular thing that Google’s parent company Alphabet sells, guess what? Alphabet’s products have a way of turning out on the top of the list.

One of the first things ever written on this blog more than five years ago was an entry called Google is Not a Substitute for Thinking, and it was one of the most read entries we’ve ever posted.

Among the arguments advanced there as to why a Google search is hardly ever going to suffice in any factual inquiry, we argued that Google’s search results are stacked in favor of the ones that are paid for or that Google judges to be commercially advantageous. A Google entry about a dry cleaner in Joplin, Missouri that has no website would not be very profitable for Google, but if that dry cleaner owes you $50,000, you would want him at the top of page one.

The best way to think about Google is to treat it as a meta-search engine. Imagine not that Google will be able to give you the final answer, but a clue as to where to find the final answer.

If your dry cleaner has no website, Google may point you to a site such as Yelp that rates a different dry cleaner in Joplin. Yelp may then have the dry cleaner you want, but that Yelp listing won’t necessarily come up on Google. Or, you may notice via Google that Joplin or the state of Missouri may require a permit to operate a dry cleaner. Google can help you find where to look up such a permit.

Remember, any dolt at the public library can use Google. It takes a person with the capacity to think creatively to use Google to its greatest potential.

Want to know more?

  • Visit charlesgriffinllc.com and see our two blogs, The Ethical Investigator and the Divorce Asset Hunter;
  • Look at my book, The Art of Fact Investigation (available in free preview for Kindle at Amazon);
  • Watch me speak about Helping Lawyers with Fact Finding, here.

Every day now, we hear about the woes of readers unable to distinguish between “fake news” and real news, as if undependable news reporting is anything new. Readers and fact investigators have always needed to know how to figure out for themselves what to believe and what to question further.

Editor word built with wooden letters

I am proud to have been a journalist for nearly 20 years (The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, The Economist, NBC and others). Where I worked we always tried to get it right so that nobody could accuse us of putting out something “fake.” But that doesn’t mean we were always right.

As Charles Griffin Intelligence uncovers facts about people we use the media (traditional, electronic and social) as critical elements in building a picture of a person’s life, connections and tendencies. The same goes for reporting on companies that are the subject of our due diligence.

But if everything we needed was in a newspaper, our clients wouldn’t need us. This is not because newspapers try to get it wrong. For a few reasons, the news has always been a “first draft of history”:

  • Newspapers must publish whether they have all the facts nailed down or not. Except for their ads, print newspapers tend to be around the same size every day. That’s not because we have the same amount of interesting news each day but because newsprint costs money. Websites have infinite space but finite budgets to hire writers and editors. Journalists often go with what they know, leave out reporting about critical elements of a story they haven’t nailed down, and hope to be able to fill in the holes in the following days.
  • “Spinning” and outright lying aren’t new. They are as old as time. Good journalists are expected to write stories that quote powerful or knowledgeable people as saying X, when the journalists suspect that the truth is not X. Journalists can’t call those they quote liars without proof, but they still go with the stories. Sometimes they never get to prove that X is wrong. Sometimes, if they believe the truth is X, they don’t try to see if it isn’t.
  • Truth is harder to pin down than we would like. Lots of well accepted scientific “facts” turn out to be incorrect, even without the constraints of deadlines and having to depend on untrustworthy people. Samuel Arbesman’s excellent book, The Half Life of Facts demonstrated how many “facts” cited in scientific journals turn out to be contradicted a short time later.
  • Most importantly, a lot of “fake news” turns out to be founded on impressions and rumors that the writers have not had time to verify before “publishing,” which today can mean “Tweeting.” Some of the bad information of today would have been spiked by good editors, but today the writers and editors are often the same people, and first drafts get published moments after they are written.

The solution? The same things that good editors have done from time immemorial.

  1. Question the source of the story. Has anyone credible verified it? If there are many injured somewhere, can you see whether a police, fire or ambulance source confirms that? We used to need reporters to call the fire department, but today the officials from the fire department often put out statements on the web that anyone can check. Real news stories ought to have confirmations from officials in them.
  2. Is the statement by the official accurately reproduced? Sometimes those publishing items can put words into the mouths of officials to make a statement saying X appear to say Y. if it’s big news, look at the statement for yourself and decide if the reporter was being fair.
  3. If you see the story reported “all over the place,” is the source the same for all the of hits on Google? 18 entries quoting the same source is no more comforting than a single source. A one-source file at a wire service once supposedly provoked the famous cable from the desk back to the field: “You alarmingly alone on this.”
  4. If the story depends on public records, can you find the public record to see for yourself? If “court documents” indicate something, you should be able to see the court documents. If they are the basis of a story on line, they should be reproduced so that readers can judge for themselves whether the documents have been reported accurately.

All this verification is to combat what I like to call “paint by numbers” investigation. When you see a paint by numbers book, you have limited ability to question the “truth” of what you are seeing. You can change the colors in the book, but the forms and relationships in the picture are fixed.

Painting by numbers is for children. Adults should look at the picture a news story paints, break it down to its elements, and assess it all with as fresh an eye as possible.

Want to know more?

  • Visit charlesgriffinllc.com and see our two blogs, The Ethical Investigator and the Divorce Asset Hunter;
  • Look at my book, The Art of Fact Investigation (available in free preview for Kindle at Amazon);
  • Watch me speak about Helping Lawyers with Fact Finding, here.

A reader of my new book, The Art of Fact Investigation, suggested that for the next edition there should be a chapter about legal ways to “hide from snoopers, private and public sector. I am probably not the only one who was thinking as I read the book on what I could do to keep my life more private in general in this day and age, other than staying off Facebook and Twitter.”

Our firm believes in showing exactly how we get the information we get (plenty of examples in the book as well as on our two blogs). Therefore, we offer here free of charge a few pointers on how databases collect information about you and what kinds of things you can do to stay off them.

  1. Buy a house through a limited liability company that is not named in connection with you or anyone in your family. Base it not at your house or office but at the office of a trusted lawyer. Deeds and mortgages in the U.S. are public, so any home bought in your name will pop up, often on the internet free of charge if you live in a county that puts all such information on line. Some counties do, some don’t.
  2. When you move into the house and you want to register for discount cards at your local drugstore or grocery store, don’t. If you don’t mind lying, give them a different name and a made-up phone number. Those stores sell the information people submit to the databases. If you put your real name and number down, you will get calls the same day asking if you need contracting or other help with your new home. As long as you have the card with you or remember the phone number you used, you will still get your discounts.
  3. If possible, put utilities in a name different from yours. Gas and electric company information gets into databases.
  4. Buy a cell phone with cash and replenish it as you go.
  5. Be very careful about who gets your cell number. As in #2 above, if you order a pizza while visiting someone else’s house and provide your cell phone number to the pizzeria, the databases may associate your number and that address.
  6. Avoid borrowing money. This is a big one, but credit reporting agencies are allowed to sell some information to databases that relates to where you live. The databases won’t disclose how much you’ve borrowed and from whom without your approval, but will make use of “header” information that can reveal home addresses, numbers and associated businesses.
  7. Try not to sue people. We had a case in which someone hiding assets and claiming to be broke sued a neighbor. We were able to trace his car that had allegedly been damaged by the neighbor, and found that the car’s owner was a relative who jumped to the top of our list of people who could have been holding our man’s money for him.

In summary, unless you use cash and live an extremely quiet life as a renter, it is difficult to hide completely from the electronic information gathering available today. On the other hand, we report to clients on a regular basis that a particular person owns a home, has never been to court and has nothing of note about him in any database or newspaper.

We then recommend interviewing former colleagues and others who would know more about him.

Once you get to this stage, our advice is: be nice to others and they will probably say nice things about you too.

Want to know more?

  • Visit charlesgriffinllc.com and see our two blogs, The Ethical Investigator and the Divorce Asset Hunter;
  • Look at my book, The Art of Fact Investigation (available in free preview for Kindle at Amazon);
  • Watch me speak about Helping Lawyers with Fact Finding, here.

The current fight between Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice, which is trying to execute a search warrant in a criminal matter, has been framed by Apple and its defenders as a battle over privacy.

Apple is not arguing that the information sought should never be seen by the government. The company handed over all the information asked for in the warrant that had already been stored on Apple’s own servers, some of which is presumably still on the phone. Where Apple wants to draw the line is the privacy of its customers who don’t back up their phones on the cloud.

It’s not enough to say you want privacy, because privacy means so many things to different people across not just national borders but even within countries.

Mortgage recording means I can figure out how much you owe your bank. Your series of LLC’s you thought would keep your beneficial ownership a secret comes unraveled when you borrow money because banks want to see who’s at the end of the chain before they lend. When they lend, the rest of us can take a peek. Yet, some countries keep mortgage information private.

Do you have the right to make private the details of your divorce? If you live in New York you do. Because those records are sealed. In other states, how much you pay your former spouse in alimony and support is wide open for everyone to see. You might as well make your tax returns public.

Speaking of tax returns, those most confidential of documents: some European countries thought to be superior guardians of privacy put everyone’s income on the internet.

Some people don’t want information on their phone made less secure because the government could get a look at health information. Health information is private, except when you have national health insurance as does most of Europe and Canada. Then, your information is between you, your doctor, and the government. Some people would still call that privacy, but it’s not as private as if it were locked on an encrypted Apple phone.

As an opinion piece in the New York Times said today, nobody appointed Apple to be the definer of privacy. That’s something governments do when they draft constitutions and statutes that their courts interpret.

Each week we receive calls from people, many of them attorneys, asking us if we can obtain bank records as part of our asset searching.  The short answer is, though we probably can obtain Bank Vault.jpgthe records, we absolutely will not.  Obtaining bank records without a court order is illegal, unless they happen to be abandoned on public property.

Of course, there are some investigators that will tell you they can get bank records.  Just the other day an attorney told us that a North Carolina investigator got him bank records a few years ago with a social security number.  We explained that, in most cases, investigators gain access to account information by pretending to be the account holder, also known as pretexting.  Anyone who has dealt with a bank before knows that they tend to ask those seeking access to an account to verify they are the account holder by providing their social security number. 

Pretexting to get bank records is expressly illegal under The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, violations of which are punishable by hefty fines, up to 5 years in prison or both.  In addition to penalties under The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, think about how the bank records are going to be used.  If you’re engaged in litigation, consider the judge’s perspective.  Judges might not take kindly to those evading judgment, but you can also bet they don’t like when judgment-plaintiffs use unlawful means to obtain bank records and will readily exclude them from evidence.

An additional word of caution–if you ask your investigator to get bank records and they do so unlawfully, you, not just your investigator, could be on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley hook as well.  The law also prohibits hiring a third party to obtain bank records through false pretenses.  Further, attorneys should know that the rules of professional conduct bar an attorney from hiring someone to do something that the attorney himself is not permitted to do. 

We prefer to get financial information another way.  We comb the public record and conduct interviews that often produce results that are just as valuable to our clients as bank records.  Perhaps your debtor owns a $2 million vacation home in Miami or owns three companies with which you were unaware they were even affiliated.  We can and do find this kind of information regularly and our clients rest assured that they won’t face time in prison because their investigator broke the law.