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Cleaning up the 'Net - Q&A with the author
Cleaning up the 'Net - Q&A with the author
Q&A with the author
Q. You're a lawyer and a specialist in counter-money laundering strategies. What do you know about the internet and computers?
A. Technically, yes, I'm still an English solicitor but I have to add the suffix "Non Practising" if I put my profession on anything so generally I don't bother. It's a bit strange, really, because it's a post graduate qualification that doesn't get the kudos of, say, an MBA. I left full time practice of law shortly after the UK introduced its counter-money laundering laws because at that time companies would buy consultancy from any Tom, Dick or accounting firm but not from lawyers. So a separate consultancy was the only way to develop the business.
I was already heavily into technology, so much so that I was recruited by several legal magazines and newspapers to write about technology in law offices. Because of that, I also got to write for some magazines aimed at a much wider market. It was exciting times: technology was new: we were still using 5.25 inch floppy disks, PCs rarely had a hard drive. In 1986, I launched my own firm with technology as a major part of the concept. We were so advanced that when we bought a fax machine in 1986, the local law society had only recently held a meeting to decide "whether to go on the fax." That phrase alone demonstrated how low the comprehension of even simple technology was. When I launched my own firm that year, we not only had a computerised centralised accounting, time recording and record keeping but centralised case management. We had a 10 megabyte hard disk but it was SCSI, real cutting edge stuff. The entire office ran on a Motorola 86000 chip, the same as my son had in his Commodore home computer / games console. To double the hard disk size, to just 20MB cost GBP750.
In theory, there was an internet but in truth it was little more than a collection of bulletin boards - and we had to dial up at, I think, 14.4kbps. The WWW was still some distance off. And although there were some private messaging systems, they didn't talk to each other. As things started to move, I started to become more interested in how the technology would improve not only efficiency but also reduce the opportunity for mistakes.
It was not my first foray into computing - in the early 1980s, I had bought a Sinclair Spectrum. Programmes and data were stored on audio cassettes and mine was the flashy version with 128kb RAM. I programmed it to produce draft divorce petitions from boilerplate templates that I developed and stored on the cassettes. Later, before the advent of PowerPoint, I used an early PC clone, made by Amstrad, to write a program to display a slide-show that we used at exhibitions and conferences. And I worked with our office systems supplier to rewrite their software to more accurately represent the way a solicitors' office worked, in an early demonstration that it's best to fit the technology around the task than to fit the task around the technology: the company was very happy because in a highly competitive market where the need for technology far outstripped demand, they sold more than 200 installations of the new program suite.
I got internet at home before trying to use it for work and eventually used it to develop World Money Laundering Report - long before the term "New Media" was in vogue, we were an electronic publishing business, now our publishing arm, Vortex Centrum Limited is one of the world's longest established e-publishing businesses. Not bad for something I started in my garden shed. We had, before that, launched our first web presence for the consultancy company.
That, I have to say, was a series of object lessons in how not to design a website: at the time, desktop publishing was all the rage but no one was doing web design so it was very much DIY. The early ones were truly horrible and taught me the importance of the expression "just because you can doesn't mean you should." These days, that mantra should be driven into the brains of TV producers who insist on silly noises, pop up banners and over-loud background music and distracting laughter tracks. I quickly learned the value of white space.
As the World Wide Web began to gain traction, it offered me the chance to do research into things I would not otherwise have even heard of. I didn't need to spend many hours reading a wide variety of trade magazines to find out what the world's banks were up to: it was there, on a screen in my shed. So when I was writing "How not to be a money launderer" in 1996, I was able to read about all kinds of developments - and to think through the risks that they presented. If anyone else was doing that, from a financial crime perspective, at the time, I never heard of them or their work.
In 1999, I was invited to present a paper to an academic conference in York. It was so well received that I received an invitation to present a development of the paper at a university conference in Kuala Lumpur.
That 1999 paper is reproduced in this book. Today, it's surprising to me how advanced the thinking was, given that we were all taking our first faltering steps into a new world. What is also surprising is that I identified many risks and proposed responses and both of those are valid now that the world has caught up with my expectations.
So, a long answer to a short question: it's all been interconnected over a period of more than 20 years, looking at the issues from several different perspectives. Most people have a narrow interest and approach the issues from their own standpoint. I'm able to see how all the issues tie together, kind of like a one-man committee. Am I technologist? No. Because how the internet does what the internet does is not actually very important. It's a tool and like all technology, if it gets the correct instructions, it will do as it's told.
Q. You've applied some of your experience in counter-money laundering, etc. strategies to this topic. Would you care to explain that?
A This time it's a short answer. In relation to financial crime, a group of nations created The Financial Action Task Force. We can learn a lot of lessons from their successes and failures. I recommend the creation of The Internet Action Task Force - nothing original there - but which, from the outset, adopts powers that the FATF has never had and, although I've used, simply for purposes of familiarity, their term "Recommendations" in fact they are mandatory principles and instructions.
Q. Will it work?
A. No, at least not in the very strict and brutal form I have laid it out. But some of the ideas are very workable - for example using counter-money laundering laws to enforce compliance with laws that internet users routinely break. There are many provisions that are completely workable - but will require political will and in countries where politics is beholden to donations from tech companies, it will take courage to stand up to them.
Q. Was this a difficult book to write?
A. Only in the sense that it's an extraordinarily fast moving field and some of the things I suggested in the first draft are already happening, in some form or another, although some implementation is, to be frank, a bit half-hearted. It seems as if there is a reluctance to implement proper procedures in one go and so we are drifting in, bit by bit.
Q. The book was originally slated for release in November 2014. Then a series of other deadlines went by. What happened?
A. Nothing to do with the work or the book. We had some distracting family stuff in the UK and so I was flitting back and forth, indeed am still doing so. Writing is a solitary pursuit requiring long unbroken blocks of time. I just wasn't getting enough of them and so I was in danger of having a book that lost its continuity because I had to reload it into my brain every few weeks. And I wrote a couple of other things in the meantime.
Q. Your writing style is very informal. Is that deliberate?
A. I can write pompous, priggish, academic stuff and I can write in legalese, but at the end of the day what matters is that people understand and retain what they read. If they have to struggle with the language or the structure, they pay more attention to that than to the message. Most of my readers aren't academics and they are not lawyers. I'm not impressed by someone who tries to make others feel inadequate or isolated by the use of complex language. So far as I'm concerned, the greatest measure of intelligence is taking complicated stuff and putting it in a way that everyone can understand. I guess that was at the heart of legal practice for me, both in an advisory capacity and as an advocate. And it's been how I approach financial crime risk management.
Q. You've written several other books. Are there any more in the offing?
A. Not at present. The book on Da'Esh / ISIS was a sudden idea based on current affairs and the one on dealing with death came about by accident. Cleaning up the 'Net has had a long gestation period and I think I'm done for the time being.
Q. So no seminars on this, then?
A. No, I don't think it's suitable for seminars. But it's good conference material, discussion points for TV and radio and for speaking at corporate and industry events. And I guess that some publications will want to produce extracts or have me write about the subject. Of course, I have a raft of subjects that are suitable for seminars when companies want to book me. [laughs] We wait with bated breath, as Billy Connolly said in the excellent "Still Crazy."
Q. You live in Malaysia but you work out of the UK. How does that work?
A. When I was a young child, in the 1960s, I used to have philosophical conversations with our milkman: you might laugh but he was an erudite man who had simplified his work life and dropped out of the rat race. I recall one discussion where we were talking about working and I said "One day, I'll be able to work from a mountain top but work all over the world." Essentially, that's what I do, although my particular mountain is a skyline apartment in the heart of Kuala Lumpur's financial district. Malaysia is a great place to live and I'm very happy here, so although we no longer have any commercial interests in Malaysia, I'm settled and at home.
© Nigel Morris-Cotterill
All rights reserved
First published 2015