The year 2020 will forever be referred to as the year the world went virtual. Businesses, conferences, schools and many more have turned to virtual technology as an alternative to physical events and meetings with many projecting that this may represent the new normal. The outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus) brought about a compulsory shift in the manner with which countries ran their economies. The impact of COVID -19 is unprecedented with several industries infusing the use of technology into activities in order to maintain operations and ensure delivery of value. Virtual technology platforms are the biggest winners, with companies and business relying heavily on their services to maintain operations. This is seen in the meteoric rise of premier video conferencing application, Zoom Technology’s market capitalisation to USD 40 Billion in a matter of months. This heavy reliance on virtual platforms must be dealt with considerable care with several factors to be considered. Virtual conferencing is perhaps maybe the safest way to operate business and schools and churches and other activities without risking the spread of the coronavirus.
The Virtual World
Different countries have adopted different approaches to adapting to the Covid-19 virus; England has adopted the virtual approach to holding parliament sittings . Scotland’s highest court has launched its virtual court for Inner House appeals, and certain procedural hearings in the Outer House are proceeding remotely by way of teleconference . In the United States of America, schools have gone virtual with several holding graduations on virtual platforms. The Judiciary in Kenya sent out notices to lawyers to the effect that pending judgments and rulings would be delivered vide Skype video link and be sent by G-mail to lawyers’ email accounts. Nigeria has also responded to the virtual sweep by issuing guidelines which serve as the basis and rulebook for successful integration of virtual platforms in several regards some of which are:
- The Nigerian Stock Exchange Guidelines on Companies’, Virtual Board, Committee and Management Meetings 2020
- The National Judicial Council in May 2020 through Ref. No. NJC/CIR/HOC/II/660 issued guidelines for court sittings and related matters in the COVID-19 period necessarily requiring a limitation in occurrences of physical hearings and encouraging a shift to virtual hearing for non-urgent matters.
- Many companies have begun to hold Annual General Meetings using virtual platforms.
This is the reality today in most countries, a combined effort of social distancing and reliance on virtual means to reduce physical meetings have become the new normal. However, the virtual world, which currently serves as a valuable aid, also must be used carefully in order to avoid several risks and possible legal issues that may arise from the use of such platforms. These risks and possible solutions to avoiding or mitigating the same will be examined below:
- Data Privacy and Security Issues:
The statement ‘the world is a global village’ cannot be overemphasised. The world is truly interconnected, thanks to technology and data. Data is often referred to as the gold of the new age and rightly so. The possibilities available when data is made accessible is insurmountable. Nevertheless, with access to data comes the need to safeguard against the misuse of data and to ensure sensitive data is not abused. There are recent case studies that underscore the need to safeguard and protect data:
- The Zoom Example:
The Zoom application, as earlier referenced in this article, seeks to provide users with an effective virtual experience with meetings and discussions held on its application. The spread of the virus saw a heavy reliance on the application by businesses in order to meet up with business demands or otherwise. Schools, Churches, Governments have also employed same means to bridge the gap created by the coronavirus. However, there have been allegations that the application has been hacked severally with users facing potential loss or misuse of data. As reported by Bloomberg . The company is accused of hiding flaws in its software system that potentially exposed it to hackers.It is further accused of sharing user data with third party sites such as Linkedin and Facebook. Zoom Chief Executive Officer Eric Yuan has admitted and tendered an apology for the lapses which he acknowledged in a blog post stating that the company had fallen short of expectations over privacy and security. Researchers also blamed weak encryption technology as the reason for the rise in hacking complaints often referred to as “Zoombombing”, where uninvited trolls gain access to a video conference to harass the other participants. Recordings of meetings have also shown up on public internet servers . In response to this, countries such as Taiwan and major companies such as Elon Musk’s Space X banned the application for its weak policy on data privacy and security. This is coming as the company faces an onslaught of suits over data breach, some of which are:
– Todd Hurvitz v. Zoom Video Communications Inc filed in California Northern District Court on May 13, 2020, essentially claiming damages for personal injury occasioned by Zoom’s privacy breach.- Gens v. Zoom Video Communications Inc filed in Oakland, USA claiming the sum of $5,000,000 for breach of contract occasioned by the release of data by the Zoom ApplicationIt is trite to say that data privacy and security should perhaps be given the most consideration. Firms and businesses run on customer or consumer data; privacy and security must be guaranteed. Making use of virtual platforms exposes businesses, firms and corporations to a myriad of legal issues relating to data privacy and breach of same. Employees on an average workday have unfettered access over this information and data, policies and mechanisms must then be put in place to ensure a safe virtual working environment. Below are some of these mechanisms which may be put in place to ensure a safe virtual working space.
- When holding virtual meetings, organisers must ensure that every participant on the virtual platform is accounted for. Every participant must endeavour to use well-known names while on the virtual platform as this enables accountability and aids in spotting an unwanted participant which may occasion a privacy breach.
- To ensure privacy with virtual meetings enable a password system that must be used to gain access to these meetings asides from the default links which may be circulated to anyone without authorisation.
- Ensure that the firm’s privacy and security policies are well updated to reflect current issues in the technology field and provide options on how to solve these issues.
- Enable a Two-Factor verification system on significant applications used by participants. This builds a more reliable wall/ protection against unauthorised access to these virtual platforms.
- Require anyone who uses their computer connected to a public Wi-Fi to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This is a paid service that keeps web browsing secure.
- For businesses and companies, activate a security system using encryption, passwords, network firewalls, and restrict the use of personal devices in accessing firm or company data/information. These would primarily help in preventing a data breach of sensitive client information and further prevent a case of substantial liability for the business or company.
- Recording of Meetings:
Meetings may be recorded for various reasons; it may be to take down minutes or have a sort of record of matters discussed on the platform. It is advised that prior consent be gotten from participants before proceeding with recording the meeting. This may be tough in practice to adhere to as setting up a virtual meeting is often an easy task and to record entails just clicking a button on the platform. However, it is advised that explicit and direct consent be sought and granted before the meeting is recorded. This ensures the safety of sensitive matters that may be discussed in such meetings.A case study is the suit filed against Zoom: Buxbaum et al. v. Zoom Video Communications Inc. were the Plaintiffs alleged that although Zoom claims not to record meetings or retain recordings of meetings, it, however, failed to install an end to end encryption system that protects users from unauthorised access to videos or call conferences made on the platform. They further alleged that Zoom had knowledge of the breach but represented otherwise to its subscribers/users leading to the exposure of videos and user details which then enables any random individual to view these videos and/or call users without permission.The Plaintiffs are now seeking an injunction to safeguard user’s personal information, an award for damages, an award for costs and fees, and other relief as determined by the court. Taiwan has further alleged that the platform routes its servers through China and as such the potential privacy leaks and data breaches pose a National Security issue for its citizens.
- Unstable Power Supply:
Although mostly a peculiar issue to certain countries, the issue of the unstable power supply is one that can halt the progress of virtual technology integration. To successfully run a virtual meeting or a virtual hearing without interruption and afford all attendees at the meeting and all parties at the hearing the opportunity to be involved, a stable power supply must be guaranteed. The essence of a virtual meeting or hearing is to replicate the same processes that would have been obtainable if the meeting or hearing were physical. As of 2018, according to the world ranking of countries in regards to the generation of power; China ranks first as the largest generator with 7,111,800 Gigawatts, the USA comes in second with 4,460,800 Gigawatts, India ranks third with 1,561,100 Gigawatt, and Nigeria comes in at 70th position with 28,000 Gigawatts . However, Nigeria only can distribute less than 5,000 Gigawatts at any point in time. It is therefore evident that power supply would be a significant challenge in the Nigerian context. Thus, in order for virtual platforms to truly thrive in Nigeria, a stable power supply must be utilised. A way to achieve this would be to provide an alternative power supply option to venues that require the same to ensure some level of stability in the progress of the meeting.
- Technical Limitations:
The key to a seamless virtual experience is an active and smooth internet connection. The absence of this renders the virtual experience fraught with connectivity issues with the possibility of participants or parties missing out on important information due to bad network. It is also trite that the organiser of the meeting or hearing ensures that all participants are familiar with the virtual platform and how to navigate same. An excellent way to ensure this would be to organise a familiarity program where participants or parties will be educated on the best ways to use the virtual platform and have the opportunity to practice same. Also, to make sure that participants have alternative access to the internet to avoid an over-reliance on the primary source.
The Nigerian Perspective on Virtual Reality
There are several definitions for Virtual Reality; however, an apt definition/ description is outlined below:
Virtual reality is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with 3D worlds. By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, even smell, the computer is transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world.
Nigeria is no longer a stranger to virtual reality with several startups actively focused on virtual reality such as Imisi 3D, StanLabs and Quadron Studios and many more taking centre stage. The market, however large, is still growing. There are different expressions of virtual reality such as virtual gambling, virtual sports and virtual gaming. The beauty of virtual reality is the ability to transport the user to a 3D world which mimics reality and affords the same user experience they would have been exposed to in a physical reality. Despite the positives of virtual reality technology, there are other considerations to take note of, chief of which is data/ privacy protection. The regime for data privacy and protection in Nigeria is the Data Protection Regulation 2019 enacted under the auspices of the National Information Technology Development Agency.
The regulation seeks to protect the collection and use of personal data. Virtual reality collects and tracks personal data, such as biometric data. Some examples of these are body tracking systems, facial recognition systems, advanced sensors such as fingerprints, voiceprints, hand and face geometry, electrical muscle activity, heart rate, skin response, eye movement detection, and head position which affords the user a thorough and immersive experience. However, it is necessary that the consent of the user be obtained before such data may be collected. The use of such data must also be lawful and according to the use made known to the user. The data collector and processor must ensure that the data is protected and a leak or breach does not occur.
The liability for any such occurrence lies on the data collector, which in the case would be the virtual reality service provider. On deeper consideration, it is the Author’s opinion that Nigeria is not equipped to competently handle some of the legal issues that may arise from the rise of virtual reality in all its forms. While there exists a data protection regulation system, it does not envisage some of the particular issues that emerge with virtual reality. A holistic appraisal of the existent regulations so as to extend their coverage to virtual reality specific issues is advised.
In conclusion, there are numerous factors to consider in this new age of virtual meetings, remote working, and virtual reality. Technology has once again proven its indispensability in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. However, to successfully enjoy its benefits, strict measures must be put in place to ensure that the technology is not abused. Steps must be and consumer data and privacy is protected. These measures have been outlined in this article. Strict adherence to them may aid prevent or contain a possible data breach or privacy/ security breach, which may have widespread liabilities for parties involved. The coronavirus has indeed presented a great opportunity for companies and stakeholders to explore a new and profitable means of providing value. It also presents opportunities to possibly reduce operating costs and simultaneously ensure newfound ease in operations. In this virtual world of opportunities, distance, and time are no longer barriers. The benefits abound but must be combined with effective checks that ensure a safe virtual working environment.