Emergency ResponseExpert WitnessSecurity

Astroworld Festival: Major Event Security & Law Enforcement Expert Provides Insights

How did the Astroworld Festival go from lively and jubilant to mass casualty event? We reached out to a security expert witness to help us understand security issues for concerts and other major events.

Last week, I began preparing to write this post involving nine individuals who attended the Astroworld Festival and lost their lives in the crush of a surging wave of festival-goers. It is not an easy topic to write about, as I want to be cognizant of the loss of life and resulting trauma experienced by family and friends. Sadly, this morning, we learned of a tenth death related to the disaster. CNN reports that a 9 year old boy, who suffered injuries at the festival, passed away in the hospital yesterday.

In writing about a tragedy of this magnitude, I have to clarify that I only do so with publicly available information that has been reported in the news. The facts may change as more information becomes available. To that end, those to whom I conduct a question and answer style blog post are also limited to publicly reported information.

Astroworld Festival Background:

According to Wikipedia, the Astroworld Festival “is an annual music festival run by American rapper Travis Scott, held in Houston, Texas, at NRG Park, near the former site of Six Flags AstroWorld. The festival was first held in November 2018.”

The festival this year was held on Friday, November 5th, 2021, at NRG Park in Houston, Texas. It has been alleged that approximately 50,000 people attended the event on November 5th, though there may have been more as the venue, NRG Park, is said to be able to house up to 200,000 attendees according to Vulture, who has done a really good job of explaining how the event unfolded.

There were indications the crowd was going to be problematic from early in the day. One ABC reporter, Mycah Hatfield, said that there was a stampede of people who burst through the gates and trampled the VIP entrance at 2:00pm.

Once Travis Scott took the stage, as Vulture describes, “all hell broke loose.” One attendee was quoted saying, “All of what is to be 50,000 people ran to the front, compressing everyone together with the little air available.” This is what I understand to be a crowd surge.

The crowd surge, compression of individuals, and trampling, all appear to have led to the result of dozens injured and now ten people deceased. As this is going to result in significant litigation, with some lawsuits already filed, I decided to get some insights on how a concert could go awry by reach out to one of our law enforcement and security experts with experience and knowledge in major event security.

Law Enforcement, Security & Premises Liability Expert Witness:

Joseph “Paul” Manley, WVTS, CCIS, Principal at Risk Mitigation Technologies, LLC, is Board Certified Workplace Violence & Threat Specialist (WVTS), a Certified Crisis Intervention Specialist (CCIS), and a Board Certified Homeland Protection Professional (CHPP).

Prior to forming Risk Mitigation Technologies, LLC, Mr. Manley served a distinguished career in law enforcement and public safety. He has over 30 years of experience in Security Management and Law Enforcement and Security consulting, including physical security, security operations, regulatory compliance, and security training. He is currently a retired Lieutenant and Executive Officer for a Massachusetts Police Department. You can learn more about his practice at: riskmitigationtechnologiesllc.com.

I asked some questions and Paul Manley provided some excellent and thorough answers to these questions. Please see our conversation below.

Nick Rishwain: We understand, from reporting, that the Astroworld investigation is highly active. How does law enforcement investigate a mass casualty event? Can you tell us a little about the processes involved in such an investigation?

Paul Manley: In an initial response to a mass casualty incident (MCI) where no criminal involvement is present, the Fire Department will have the initial Incident Command responsibility. The local fire departments are very proficient in the handling of Mass Casualty Incidents. Most fire departments hold continuous MCI drills and have extensive equipment and supplies to manage mass casualties.

There are four specific things that Law Enforcement can do to assist the fire department in their management of an MCI. These jobs in the MCI Protocol for Law Enforcement are:

  1. Crowd control
  2. Traffic control
  3. Contact coroner
  4. Criminal investigation

The initial critical decisions for the first responding law enforcement personnel at an MCI will be is this a criminal event? And are suspects still on scene?

Regardless of your first impressions of how the MCI was caused, officers should immediately begin a basic preliminary investigation during the first few minutes of the law-enforcement response.

Also, a law enforcement officer will immediately go to the Fire Command Post and accept law enforcement command duties in the Unified Command structure until relieved. This will ensure that the law enforcement Incident Commander is completely up to speed on the event if we later find out a criminal act has occurred.

The reality is mass casualty events pose unique challenges to law enforcement agencies such as securing the scene, investigating the crime, working with the media on a local and or national level, helping the victims and their families, responding to elected officials, securing critical infrastructure, and providing support to both their officers and to community members as they address the aftermath of a tragic event.

Nick Rishwain: On the security side, there appears to be an issue of the crowd surging towards the stage and trampling attendees. Is this a common concern for security at an event where there are tens of thousands of people?

Paul Manley: Crowd surges are common at large events, such as concerts or festivals. However, deadly crowd surges are not common.

Nick Rishwain: How does major event security prepare for and prevent crowd surges?

Paul Manley: Event security starts with a comprehensive threat assessment, analyzing the overall threat environments associated with the event, such as its host(s), the venue/environment, known or expected attendees, sponsors, historical events and political agendas.

Crowd surges are preventable, even at large events. It is about planning, managing, and separating the crowd, so it does not become too packed. That is what should have happened at Astroworld.

Crowd separation is crucial in preventing surges and crowd crush. Use barriers to create a channel that funnels fans smoothly into your check-in point. Place visible staff members at the start of your lines to yell directions to the crowd and ask them to have their tickets and identification ready. Venues must be organized in such a way as to prevent too many people from converging in one place. The bigger the crowd, the more likely it is that something can go wrong. Your staff needs to be comfortable with managing large groups and exerting authority when needed.

There must be enough security officers to manage the event. If it could be as simple as applying a city ordinance, state law or a defined security standard out of the ASIS Protection of Assets Manual, or even a retail crowd safety guideline from OSHA, this question would hardly be as popular of an issue. Presently there are no security standards defining the ratio of patrons to security staff. In most cases, while always blending security and safety, we should not exceed the crowd manager responsibility as per The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 101), but should we assign 1-to-10 or 1-to-100? As with most security functions, an appropriate risk assessment is the most valid solution. The big-ticket items to consider are Crowd Control & Critical Coverage.

From news reports, we understand there were 1,283 security officers for a crowd of 50,000 people at the 2021 Astroworld Festival. They were overwhelmed at entrances earlier in the day according to the Vulture article you shared, and they were overwhelmed again when Travis Scott took the stage at around 9 p.m. The combination of overcrowding, lack of crowd separation, and not enough security officers (allegedly) had deadly consequences.

Also, crowd observers should be positioned around the perimeter of the crowd, high enough that they can spot surges or crush points. When a problem is identified, the observer alerts the performer. The performer should then pause the show until the situation is under control. The power and influence of a performer at a large venue cannot be ignored. They can help security and emergency personnel do their jobs by bringing awareness to the problem.

From a mitigation point of view, to lower the consequences of a crowd surge/rush, venue design measures could be implemented, such as the removal of obstacle and bottlenecks in crowd’s movements, which could give rise to slips, trips, and falls and, in the worst case, trampling or crowd collapses in an event space. Signage should be well visible, specifying emergency exits and general wayfinding within the event location. Also, event staff and law enforcement personnel should be highly visible to ensure they can be easily seen when giving instructions in crowed areas. Enhanced security and crowd management training should ensure staff is aware of directing spectators safely during an evacuation. (“Patron Management – Event Safety and Security Risk Update …”)

Nick Rishwain: According to this article from Vulture, it is claimed that a “mass-casualty incident” was initiated but it took 40 minutes to cancel the concert. How do security and law enforcement decide to cancel an event? Then what is the process?

Paul Manley: If a crowd is in distress, then there should be a procedure in place to immediately stop that event, at least temporarily. You should have a knowledgeable team of experts who know exactly what they are doing and can identify a crowd in distress. These stop teams are well trained, are in direct communication with the performer’s representative, lighting designer and the sound engineer who understand their role and responsibility in the event of an incident.

Nick Rishwain: We know there is an ongoing criminal investigation and lawsuits have been filed. On the civil side, is this a premises liability matter at its core?

Paul Manley: Sadly, yes, tragedies like this one do not just happen; They are preventable; they are often caused by negligence and poor planning.

Again, it has been alleged that rapper Travis Scott & Astroworld organizers ignored red flags. We also understand this is not the first time tragedy has struck an Astroworld event, nor is it the first time that Travis Scott has been involved in a performance or event that ended in violence.

From what we’ve read, this concert continued as people screamed for help. It appears some patrons even begged camera operators and security guards to stop the music to no avail. As reported, the police proclaimed a mass casualty event at 9:38 p.m. local time, just over 30 minutes after Scott started his set, but the performance did not stop until 10:15 p.m., nearly 40 minutes later. The situation appears to have gotten worse by the lack of preparation by the concert organizers. For example, allegedly there were a limited number of water stations, staggering overcrowding issues in the general admission areas, as well as the understaffed and under-resourced medical team.

If the reporting is accurate, these red flags and others that materialized earlier in the day as people stormed the security gates at the beginning of the festival, should have been enough of a warning sign that the venue either needed to improve their security coverage and response or have been canceled. However, these concerns, just like the pleas to stop the show as people were dying, appear to have been ignored.

With all of this said, I reserve the right to change my answers and analysis as more information about the tragedy is released. Also, I should say that I have not analyzed the police reports or any factual analysis on the ground which could also alter my analysis.


We thank Paul Manley for his analysis based on the publicly available information related to the Astroworld Festival. We may venture back into this matter at a later date as more of the facts are solidified and because there are such a large number of parties involved, we may require analysis from additional areas of expertise.

FraudHealthcareLitigationSecurities

Securities Fraud: The United States v. Elizabeth Holmes

In 2018, Experts.com uploaded a blog post regarding the separate SEC charges against Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes, and Chief Operating Officer, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, for securities fraud and injunctive relief. The post offered predictions of the types of experts expected to provide their insight on the situation due to the case’s multifaceted nature. As the trial began on September 8th, 2021, this month’s blog post will cover the events that have transpired since the SEC charge in 2018, the opening statements made in the trial thus far, and insight from Experts.com Member, Mr. James (Jim) Ellis, to help explain the legalities from an Expert Witness perspective.

2018 to the Present (Timeline by CNN)

As mentioned, the SEC has pressed separate charges against Holmes and Balwani for securities fraud in March 2018. Before these charges, Theranos had advertised how it could drastically change the healthcare industry by providing the world’s first portable, needle-free, and affordable blood analyzer sold in stores like Walgreens and Safeway. Essentially, people can test for various diseases and get results from a prick of a finger. Theranos would be a pioneer in modernizing blood tests without large vials with the help of their Edison blood analyzer machines. Investors were sold on this dream and the company was able to garner a net worth of $9 billion. Due to this seemingly revolutionary invention, she was heralded as the “next Steve Jobs” by multiple news outlets.

Since 2015, suspicions have been raised by various media and medical groups including the Wall Street Journal, Journal of the American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration, Central for Medicare and Medical Services, and various investors, as the technology of Theranos’ product proved to be faulty. Holmes and Balwani not only denied any wrongdoings when criticized by skeptics, but they continuously reassured customers and investors that their blood analyzer was sure to be the next life-altering invention for the healthcare industry. As time went on, Theranos failed to execute its mission technologically, ethically, and by medical guidelines. Investors sued for fraud in 2016. The amount of money misappropriated by Theranos totaled approximately $700 million. 

This led to the eventual indictment of both Holmes and Balwani despite having separate SEC charges. According to ABC News, Holmes agreed to pay a $500,000 fine, relinquish her role as CEO of Theranos and any other publicly traded company for the next decade, and give back her $18.9 million in stocks. As for Balwani, it remains to be seen whether he will decide to settle with the Securities and Exchange Commission. ABC News also highlighted Balwani’s attorney, Jeffrey Coopersmith, stating his client, “accurately represented Theranos to investors to the best of his ability.” He will, however, still be tried in court after Holmes.

Since the settlement, the rise and fall of Theranos have been the subject of various documentaries like HBO’s “The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley,” (2019) and ABC’s podcast “The Dropout: Elizabeth Holmes on Trial,” (2019). Holmes’ trial date was set to occur in 2020, but due to the pandemic and her pregnancy, the trial was delayed and set for 2021. 

The Trial (CNN Business)

On September 8th, 2021, the long-overdue trial between Elizabeth Holmes and the U.S. Government began. As this trial is ongoing, there is a limited amount of information. In his opening statement, Robert Leach, Assistant U.S. Attorney and lead prosecutor for the case stated, “This is a case about fraud, about lying and cheating to get money… Out of time and out of money, the defendant decided to mislead…. The defendant’s fraudulent scheme made her a billionaire. The scheme brought her fame, it brought her honor, and it brought her adoration.”

Holmes’ attorney, Lance Wade, shot back in an opening statement for the defense with, “Elizabeth Holmes did not go to work every day intending to lie, cheat and steal. The government would have you believe her company, her entire life, is a fraud. That is wrong… In the end, Theranos failed, and Ms. Holmes walked away with nothing. But failure is not a crime. Trying your hardest and coming up short is not a crime.”

There have been some predictions about what strategies Holmes’ legal team may use in court. In 2020, CNN reported the relationship between Holmes and Balwani was more than just business partners. As the two were romantically involved in the past, and according to recently unsealed court documents, Holmes may admit to experiencing emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. Whether Holmes testifies regarding these claims remains to be seen. Balwani has vehemently denied the abuse allegations, and since his trial commences after Holmes’, only time will tell if this topic will be discussed in court.

(photo credit: New York Post)

Insight from Our Members

Considering the charges of the trial, Experts.com Member and Private Investigation Expert Witness, Mr. James (Jim) Ellis, sheds light on the elements that constitute wire fraud and the situations for which the federal charge is used. According to Mr. Ellis, “Wire fraud, and mail fraud as well, are generally federal statutes that can be used against fraud schemes where no other federal statutes apply.” Since the statute is extensive, federal prosecutors use this to charge the varying types of fraud. Four characteristics constitute wire fraud (941. 18 U.S.C. 1343, United States Department of Justice Archives):

  1. The defendant was part of a scheme to defraud another person, such as obtaining money or something else of value through false pretenses.
  2. The defendant acted knowingly with the intent to defraud.
  3. The defendant made or caused to be made false representations that were material to the scheme to defraud.
  4. The defendant transmitted a material misrepresentation by wire, radio, or television communications in interstate or foreign commerce.

Mr. Ellis adds how the courts also include electronic communication in their interpretation of the statute due to the emergence of the internet and cellular devices in recent decades. This increases the odds of Ponzi schemes, phishing, catfishing, online shopping scams, and other duplicitous actions taking place. Most of these cases would not be considered wire fraud scams unless the dollar amount lost equals or surpasses $1 million. Anything less does not warrant federal attention. Although this is unrelated to the Theranos v. United States Government trial, Mr. Ellis mentioned, “According to the FBI, over $600 million was stolen from unsuspecting people in 2020 through online romance scams.” 

From the elements of the statute and the multitude of avenues wire fraud can be committed nowadays, it can be inferred that wire fraud cannot be an accidental crime. Due to the second element of wire fraud, federal prosecutors who use this charge must provide evidence of the defendant having the intent to scam individuals, knowingly providing promises under false pretenses, and doing so to acquire monetary gain from their victims.

To play devil’s advocate regarding Elizabeth Holmes’ trial, it is possible her intention at the beginning of building her business was not to scam investors and patients. From her interviews on various media channels, her belief in Theranos and its mission never wavered. Mr. Ellis imparts, “However… if the same person began to realize their company wasn’t sustainable or even profitable, or if their product wasn’t turning out as they thought it would; and they knowingly made misrepresentations about their company or product in the hope they could eventually turn it around; then they quite possibly have committed wire fraud.” Because it is difficult to distinguish a failed attempt from a duplicitous sale, law enforcement must be meticulous in looking for the elements of fraud (listed in the statute above) before starting an investigation.

This case is interesting not only because of the nature of Theranos’ inventive endeavor, but because we see two corporate executives being sued for wire fraud. Mr. Ellis mentioned, “Often the federal government will use civil statutes to target the corporate entity itself. The wire fraud statute is normally used against the employees of a corporation who is committing fraud.” Those who hold corporate positions, especially people that lead the corporations, tend to be entrepreneurs. Why is this important? Because those with an entrepreneurial spirit are most likely to find themselves in legal matters like Elizabeth Holmes if they are not careful enough. “These people who start new ventures, even with the best of intentions, could easily fall into a trap of telling a ‘white lie’ to not let a dream die,” Mr. Ellis added. The question of how often corporate executives find themselves in civil or criminal fraud lawsuits remains unanswered, but what is salient is the undesirable consequence of committing wire fraud, an outcome Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani are currently facing. 

It remains to be seen how this will all play out in the courtroom but investors, clients, and the general public are on the edge of their seats to learn the fate of these two infamous entrepreneurs.

FDAPharmaceutical

Pharmaceutical Medicine: Pfizer Vaccine Granted FDA Approval

On Monday, August 23, 2021, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was granted approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for individuals 16 and older. Due to its newly approved status, what was known as the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine will now be advertised as Comirnaty (koe-mir’-na-ty). According to the BBC, “The approval ultimately came less than four months after the Pfizer-BioNTech filed for licensing in early May – the fastest vaccine approval in the FDA’s more than 100 year history.” The abrupt onset of the Coronavirus last year served as the impetus for a necessary response by medical professionals to reduce spread, infections, and deaths. Even though the vaccine has been distributed since December 11th, 2020, Acting FDA Commissioner, Janet Woodcock, M.D., hopes the FDA approval will cement certainty for concerned individuals to get vaccinated. With insight from FDA Expert Witness, Mr. Alan Schwartz of mdi Consultants, Inc., this blog post will examine the approval process for vaccines before and during COVID-19 as well as enlighten readers about reasons behind Comirnaty’s FDA approval.

Alan Schwartz is a seasoned expert in FDA protocols. He has over 50 years of experience in the field . When asked about the FDA’s general approval process, he states, “The process is NORMALLY very extensive. It could take years from the start of development through laboratory bench testing, animal safety studies, then human safety, and finally efficacy studies.” Mr. Schwartz also noted the avergage costs companies pay for these trials can reach up to $100 million, which these companies were able to actualize due to the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). “The FDA under the EUA gave the companies a BULLET TRAIN path to get these through the emergency use approval,” he stated. In an ideal situation, the FDA would contact the clinical study participants throughout the duration of a year after receiving a vaccine. However, because of COVID-19, the vaccine has been officially approved after it has been administered to approxiamtely 100 million people. This was most likely due to political pressure and, more importantly, ensuring the well-being of citizens around the globe. In this situation, the long-term follow up was missing in the approval process. Nevertheless, the fact that roughly 100 million people received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before its approval provided the necessary data on its efficacy and safety in real time. “So, did the FDA expedite the approval or did they have more data to use in their decision making process… we hope that they used good science to get this through the approval process since it was already being used for a year,” Mr. Schwartz mentioned.

Some concerns from those expressing doubt include whether the Pfizer vaccine was changed or modified for the purpose of an expedited approval process. Schwartz reassured there was an absence of changes regarding the production and formula of both the EUA and approved vaccinations. “This was all new to the FDA and in the industry… Normally when a vaccine or a drug is under FDA review there are many questions and back and forth that take a lot of time. I don’t think this was necessary under these conditions.” However, since Pfizer is currently manufacturing and advertising Comirnaty, the pharmaceutical company is allowed to continue using the EUA vaccine. The EUA is considered an experimental drug, but as soon as Comirnaty is ready for vaccine administration, Pfizer will be held liable if any problems arise.

A New York Times article stated, “Regulators are still reviewing Moderna’s application for full approval of its vaccine.” Since both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are based on similar mRNA technology and both had emergency use authorization, there are questions regarding when the public can expect or not expect Moderna’s approval by the FDA. “I would be very surprised if we did not see Moderna approved,” Mr. Schwartz commented. Moderna has submitted their application for full FDA approval which is currently pending review. Announcements about its approval should occur in the near future (NPR).

The FDA has stated that the immunization will continue to be available for children aged 12-15 under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). It remains uncertain when Comirnaty will be FDA approved for younger people, as the CDC recently announced its vaccine recommendation for said demographic back in May. Although there is not an official timeline, Mr. Schwartz predicts, “It may take until next year to obtain all required safety and efficacy data for pediatric indication.” The lack of data amid clinical trials is the primary reason as to why Comirnaty has not received approval for young people. However, this is not an obstacle for the Los Angeles Board of Education, the second-largest school district, who recently voted on September 9th to require students 12 and older to get vaccinated.

Current protocols include a mask mandate during in-person classes and frequent COVID-19 testing as a precaution against the virus. According to U.S. News, “Under LA Unified’s plan, all students age 12 and up will be fully vaccinated by the time they return to class following winter break on Jan.11. Those who are participating in sports and other activities need to receive a first dose of vaccine by Oct. 3 and a second dose by Oct. 31, while other students need to get their first dose by Nov. 21 and a second dose no later than Dec. 19.” Board members believe the implementation of this plan is the best course of action to responsibly protect children under the age of 12, the demographic not yet eligible for vaccinations. There are some parents who agree with the Los Angeles Board of Education’s vote, as it is similar to other immunizations students are required to receive such as chickenpox, polio, and measles to name a few. Other parents not only think the vote was rushed, but also believe the choice for their child receiving COVID-19 vaccine or not should be a parental decision.

So, we continue on this journey of uncertainty with COVID-19, the vaccines, and their aftereffects. It is only a matter of time before future vaccine mandates are implemented in school districts and businesses across the country. A special thanks to Mr. Alan Schwartz for his insight on the FDA approval process of the Pfizer-BioNTech produced Comirnaty vaccine.

EvidenceExpert WitnessExpert Witness Testimony

Cancer Verdict Overturned: Trial Court did not follow Daubert Expert Witness Standard

$117 million talcum powder Mesothelioma verdict overturned by failure of the trial court to follow their gate-keeping role.

In an article today from Husch Blackwell, they highlight a case in which a significant verdict for the plaintiffs was recently overturned by the appellate court for failures to conduct a proper Daubert analysis.

As most of our members are aware, a “Daubert hearing” or “Daubert review” is the standard used by the trial court for admitting expert witness testimony. It is the federal standard for admitting expert witness testimony, but the standard has been adopted by a majority of US states.

For your brief review, I’ve decided to add the elements of the Daubert test below, from Cornell Law School:

  1. whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested;
  2. whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication;
  3. its known or potential error rate;
  4. the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation;
  5. whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

There have been a wide variety of mesothelioma lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of baby powder products. Generally speaking, the issue arises from long-term talcum powder use allegedly exposing plaintiffs to asbestos in the talcum powder which causes mesothelioma.

In my 11 years in the expert witness field, there have only been a couple toxic tort matters where the science has been as fiercely contested as it is in the talcum powder cases. The only other cases in recent memory where the science is hotly debated involves lymphoma resulting from the herbicide Round-Up. The Round-Up lawsuits resulted in an $11B settlement between plaintiffs and defendants.

This talcum powder case out of New Jersey, was very similar to the other talcum powder cases. The plaintiffs, Stephen Lanzo III and his wife sued a variety of defendants including one Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, claiming Mr. Lanzo’s long-term use of baby powder caused him to contract mesothelioma.

The trial judge permitted testimony from two of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. James S. Webber, Ph.D. and Jacqueline Moline, M.D. On appeal, the 3-judge panel overturned the verdict because they didn’t think the trial court applied a proper Daubert standard in permitting the testimony from doctors Webber and Moline.

According to the article from Husch Blackwell attorney Brittany Lomax, the appellate court basically found that three prongs of the Daubert test were not met, “Namely, the opinions and theories were not tested, not subject to peer review and publication, and were not generally accepted in the scientific community. The panel further held that the trial court did not perform ‘its required gatekeeping function’ by failing to conduct a proper analysis to determine whether the expert opinions met the Daubert standards and failing to assess the methodology or the underlying data used by the two experts to form their opinions.”

As a result, the appellate court remanded to the trial court and ordered new trials for two of the defendants.

It is worth noting, this is a major win for defendants in these talcum powder cases. It appears the appeals courts, at least in New Jersey, are going to review scientific evidence with exceptional rigor.

Emergency MedicineExpert Witness

Emergency Medicine: Medical Malpractice Lawsuits During COVID-19

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Medical malpractice is defined as any act or omission by a physician during treatment of a patient that deviates from accepted norms of practice in the medical community and causes an injury to the patient.” Medical malpractice is a component of tort law, which addresses professional negligence and offers reparations for civil offense. Some common examples of medical malpractice include misdiagnosis / delayed diagnosis, prescription drug errors, surgical / procedural errors, and failure to treat. However, until the recent COVID-19 outbreak, medical malpractice suits related to a pandemic have rarely been discussed. In this blog post, Experts.com aims to shed light on the topic with insight from Emergency Medicine Members, Sajid R. Khan, MD, and Vipul Kella, MD, MBA FACEP.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a plethora of problems for citizens, businesses, and industries all over the globe. According to Dr. Kella, “The pandemic placed enormous strain on our health systems: hospitals were operating at maximum capacity, supply shortages were well-publicized, and healthcare providers were scarce and overworked.” To add, during the pandemic, medical professionals had to simultaneously learn about the nature of the virus, its symptoms, and how it affected people of all ages. Despite the circumstances, essential workers in the medical field have abided by their ethical duty to commit no harm and to save their patients to the best of their ability. With the mystery of an unprecedented illness, and the learning curve associated with it, should the medical community be held to the same medical malpractice standard for COVID-19 as for other illnesses?

To his knowledge, Dr. Khan is unaware of any COVID-related malpractice lawsuits. However, to make a medical malpractice claim in most states, deviation from the standard of care must be demonstrated. Dr. Khan confirmed that the standard of care has frequently changed throughout COVID-19 due to the oddity of the situation. “Therapeutic recommendations change from month to month, making establishment of medical malpractice that more challenging,” he added. During the pandemic’s inception, healthcare professionals had to care for patients and prioritize their own physical well-being. Especially in populated areas like New York City, the medical community faced a scarcity of supplies. Dr. Khan, and many other Emergency Medicine professionals, have participated in a multitude of discussions about how to best select the patients who had the strongest chance of surviving. This of course is not the preferred method of treatment, but desperate times call for desperate measures. He stated, “It would be irresponsible to hold providers responsible for failing to provide optimal care to patients with such an illness.” Through the news and social media, the whole world has seen the medical community in action to help minimize the spread of COVID-19. Has the United States government taken any action to minimize the legal ramifications towards the healthcare industry? What measures can healthcare providers take to reduce the risk of medical malpractice involvement?

According to Dr. Kella, there have been a few acts passed by the federal government to alleviate the stress of the medical community. He mentions the Public Read and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act and the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The PREP Act, amended by the US Department of Health and Human Services, provides legal protections to medical providers, whereas the CARES Act protects healthcare providers offering volunteer services during the pandemic against liability. “These regulations were good news for physicians as they allowed more leeway for trying to deliver care during difficult circumstances that were often out of their direct control,” Dr. Kella mentioned. Although there is protective legislation, this does not mean the medical community should not maximize efforts to minimize medical malpractice lawsuits. COVID-19 is known to advance a patients’ pre-existing or chronic disease. For instance, the standard of care has altered throughout the pandemic and, as such, Dr. Kella has suggested healthcare providers to meticulously check the documentation and routines of their patients to avoid negligence.

As the United States produces and administers vaccinations, the medical community’s knowledge of COVID-19 expands. Medical malpractice may not have played a large role throughout the beginning of the pandemic. As the days pass and perhaps more litigation arises, holding COVID-19 medical professionals to a strict standard of care, unless it is an egregious departure, could have a chilling effect on the medical community. As was apparent in the middle of the outbreak, the last outcome our country needs is fewer doctors and nurses.

ElectronicsExpert WitnessLitigation

Apple v. Epic Games Trial: What You Need To Know

Introduction

Technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google face legal battles yearly. Recently, another behemoth has followed suit (pun intended). On August 13th, 2020, Apple found itself involved in an antitrust lawsuit against Fortnite video game creator, Epic Games. The trial began on May 3rd, 2021 and is ongoing, so this blog post will not have all the answers. As it unfolds, this post will delve into the perspectives of both businesses, describe the nature of the trial, introduce opening statements from the first day of the trial, and explain possible outcomes for both Epic Games and Apple.

Epic Games

Epic Games has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple Inc. in response to the removal of its most popular game, Fortnite, from the iPhone App Store. This prohibited 116 million of its 350 million users from updating the game and new consumers from downloading the app (this does not affect the remaining players using other smartphones or gaming consoles). Fortnite’s eradication from iOS App Stores has caused players from around the world to unite in a social media campaign called #FreeFortnite. Epic Games accused the tech giant of monopolizing purchasing options for apps by restricting other methods of conducting transactions. Due to Apple’s renowned international success, Epic Games has filed lawsuits against Apple in Australian, United Kingdom, and European courts. Epic Games not only wants Fortnite back on the iOS App Store, but it also wants to launch a rival App Store on all Apple devices so users can purchase Epic Games products through non-Apple means.

Apple

The catalyst for Fortnite’s removal from Apple’s App Store was the release of a new update by Epic Games which included the implementation of an in-game purchasing currency called “V-Bucks.” This currency allows players to buy items through non-App Store channels. Users who purchase Fortnite items such as outfits, pickaxes, and the latest season’s Battle Pass get to enjoy a 20% discount, which incentivizes players to continue using V-Bucks. Since these purchases are not made through the App Store, V-Bucks circumvents Apple’s chances of receiving its 30% share of any transaction, hence its removal from the App Store and the foundation of #FreeFortnite. In response to Epic Games’ claim of Apple becoming a monopoly, Apple explains the fairness in its decision to remove the game from its App Store. According to Apple, Epic Games violated its agreement by installing V-Bucks without Apple’s permission. If Apple wins the trial, this contract violation could keep Fortnite and all other apps made by Epic Games, or apps run by its game engine, Unreal Engine, from the App Store (The Verge).

The Trial

The trial began on Monday, May 3rd, 2021 in federal court in Oakland, California. This proceeding is a bench trial; thus, the judge will be making the final ruling with no jury. The trial will be held in person and the press and public are prohibited from entering the courtroom. The presiding judge for the United States trial is Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers. Pending trial, she declined Epic Games’ request for Apple to host Fortnite on iOS devices. Trial dates for the international lawsuits against Apple are unknown. However, Epic Games has recently filed lawsuits in November 2020 (Australia), January 2021 (United Kingdom), and February 2021 (Europe).

Opening Statements and Trial Arguments (photo credits from The Verge)

In its opening statement, Epic Games compares Apple’s restrictive policies to a “Walled Garden.” Its argument is based on the unfairness of Apple’s control over purchasing options. Two expert witnesses testified on behalf of Epic Games. University of Chicago economist, Dr. David Evans, told the court, “Apple’s rules unfairly prevent developers from letting consumers know if their prices for in-app purchases take into account the iPhone maker’s 30% commission or that consumers may be able to get better deals elsewhere,” (Wall Street Journal). To add, Susan Athey, an Economics of Technology professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, explained Apple’s stronghold over consumers is due to their prohibitive iOS mobile operating system. In the case of this trial, if a consumer wanted to access Fortnite an iPhone, the user would need to switch to a different smartphone brand and repurchase all the apps originally purchased from iOS devices. Since the internet is needed to play Fortnite, Evans highlights how gaming consoles could never replace smartphones, as it lacks cellular data for users who want to play the game from anywhere.

Apple’s opening statement was a defensive response to Epic Games’ claims. According to The Wall Street Journal, Apple hired University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor, Lorin Hitt, to discuss in-app purchases. Hitt claims, “anticompetitive measures tend to result in reduced quality, yet that hasn’t happened with iPhone and iPads apps, as developers have seen their revenue increase over time.” Essentially, consumers notice the value in the offers proposed by Apple. As noted by the graph below, Mr. Hitt also denounced Epic Games’ claim about Apple’s monopoly-like practices. Users switch devices frequently because people like the products acquired for different reasons. If this were not the case, Play Station and XBOX would not generate over 50% of Fortnite’s revenue for the last two years. This also infers that most Fortnite users are not on iOS devices, which is surprising considering there are 1.5 billion active Apple devices. In addition, Apple insists the iPhone offers multiple avenues for financial transactions. Although difficult to decipher, the second picture provided by Apple indicates that the iPhone, compared to its competitors and subsidiaries, offers three types of digital game transactions options: The App Store, Web Applications, and Purchasing on Other Platforms to play on iOS. Ultimately, Apple is arguing that its practices are not prohibitive nor remotely resemble a “Walled Garden.”

Possible Outcomes

The outcome of the trial between Epic Games and Apple Inc. can end in multiple ways. One hypothetical is the verdict will resume the current situation: users could not access Fortnite on iOS devices, but other games produced by Unreal Engine will remain on Apple’s App Store. If the judge rules in favor of Epic Games, it may be able to create and launch its own App Store on iOS devices.

Legislation

In addition to the trial, a new state bill that recently passed the House 31-29 may negatively impact Apple’s case. According to The Verge, Arizona’s House Bill 2005, “prevents app store operators from forcing a developer based in the state to use a preferred payment system…,” which would ultimately force Apple to provide various payment methods on iOS. This development could be beneficial for Epic Games.


ConsultantsNonprofitNonprofitUncategorized

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Will Divorce Impact the Nonprofit?

News media and tabloids have been focused on the high-profile divorce. We were interested in how divorce impacts a family foundation.

Last week, the tech and media worlds were abuzz with news of the Bill & Melinda Gates divorce. After 27 years of marriage, one of the richest couples in the world decided to call it quits. This was a shock to many outsiders looking in. Their long-term marriage, despite all the trappings of wealth and influence, seemed like it would stand the test of time. The New York Times, in this article, described the two parties as having “reshaped philanthropy and public health,” with the fortune acquired by the couple as a result of Mr. Gates being a co-founder, and past CEO, of Microsoft.

Certainly, when I think of philanthropy, I think of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A well-funded operation run by the couple, in a fight against global health crises. Last year, when COVID-19 invaded every aspect of our lives, Bill Gates was seen on TV and in articles providing guidance on dealing with the pandemic. Through his work at the foundation he had gained significant insight and had been warning of pandemic threats for many years. Bill played such an instrumental role in the process that many people now associate the foundation with public health.

On the home page of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the first thing a visitor sees is the following text: “We are a nonprofit fighting poverty, disease, and inequity around the world.” Much of their philanthropic work takes place in the form of grants. In 2019 alone, the Gates Foundation provided more than $2.7 billion in grants according to their own reporting. The foundation has made grants in the following areas: gender equality, global development, global health and more.

Now that the Gates’ are calling it quits, how will that impact the operations of this massive nonprofit?

Nonprofit attorney and consultant insights

Having little or no experience with nonprofits (more specifically a family foundation) myself, except for my annual contributions, I reached out to one of our consultants, Jess Birken, Esq. Ms. Birken is the owner of the Birken Law Office, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a lawyer who helps nonprofits solve problems so they can focus on what really matters… their mission. Her practice specializes in nonprofit organizations. Before becoming a private practice attorney, Ms. Birken spent four years inside a national nonprofit organization, Pheasants Forever. In that role she managed about $50M in state and federal government grants and worked on hundreds of conservation real estate deals.

In essence, Ms. Birken had the expertise I was seeking. She could answer the questions I had about nonprofit operations in the face of familial separation. For purposes of attribution, I had developed some of my questions from this article by Vox. Ms. Birken used this New York Times article for some of the information about the organizations.

Below, you’ll find my questions and Ms. Birken’s answers:

Nick Rishwain: This matter involves a family foundation. How is a family foundation different from other types of nonprofits?

Jess Birken: Generally, a “family foundation” is completely or mostly funded by one family. The term family foundation isn’t a legal term though, it’s just a way to describe a private foundation with that characteristic. Private foundations in general are different from the nonprofits most people think about when they hear the term “nonprofit.” Most people hear nonprofit, and they are picturing a public charity (like your local church or pet rescue).

Both public charities and private foundations get tax-exempt status and are labeled as 501(c)(3) organizations by the IRS. Both types are established for a charitable purpose and have a mission. Both types can use the word “Foundation” in their title. It can all be a little confusing.  The major difference between a private foundation, like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and a public charity, like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is where they get their financial support. Public charities raise money from the general public, but a private foundation usually has one source of funding, typically an individual, family, or corporation.

Another key distinction is that private foundations also often differ in their activities. They typically don’t run programs directly – like, say, a soup kitchen serving people experiencing homelessness. Instead, private foundations often make grants to other organizations. A private foundation might make grants to many homeless shelters running many soup kitchens. Other differences between the two include the fact that the board of a private foundation is not required to be diverse (often the board is made up of only family members, etc.); that they are required to make charitable distributions throughout the tax year; and that they must pay a nominal excise tax on their net investment income.

Nick Rishwain: We know divorce can have impacts on businesses and real property, in respect to division of assets. Are nonprofits incorporated in a similar way which would cause a division?

Jess Birken: Generally, no single person owns a nonprofit. Nonprofits do not have shareholders or issue stock and private individuals can’t benefit from them. So, they aren’t an asset that can be split up in a divorce.

Nick Rishwain: In the Vox article, the foundation said, “that the philanthropy did not anticipate changes to its work.” What changes might a divorce cause to a nonprofit?

Jess Birken: Theoretically none. Even a family foundation has a board of directors. These directors have fiduciary duties to carry out the mission and take actions in the best interest of the nonprofit – regardless of any individual board members’ personal life situation.

In the case of a family foundation, however, where the primary funder is the family, then it could be the case that the donations to the foundation that are directly from the family will decrease temporarily (or long term) as the assets of the donor family are apportioned through a divorce proceeding. Whether this happens may be revealed through the upcoming IRS Form 990 filings that show revenue and contributions by donor as part of Schedule B in the years ahead. So, a temporary reduction in activity or some kind of holding pattern (versus expansion) could happen. In the case of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the foundation has net assets forming an endowment of about $50 billion. So, any flux in family contributions is likely to be a minor hiccup for this foundation.

Nick Rishwain: Are nonprofit organizations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation usually funded year-to-year?

Jess Birken: For accounting purposes the nonprofit accounts for contributions it receives during its accounting year. How frequently donations are made by a family will depend on the family and their philanthropic vision and tax planning needs. I’m not an estate planning expert but it’s probably fair to say that in general donations to family foundations are likely to be calculated annually based on each year’s tax planning situation.

Nick Rishwain: In the above article, Vox indicates the Bill & Melinda Gates divorce might impact their nonprofit foundation. Could a private divorce impact the work or funding of such a large nonprofit organization?

Jess Birken: From the perspective that both parties to the divorce are on the board of directors, that’s certainly possible. As I mentioned before, the assets of the family will be getting a shakeup through the divorce. It’s possible that either Bill or Melinda – once they have completely separate households – will make their own contributions based on their own philanthropic interests.

In this instance, however, it seems their public commitment to the core foundation work is aligned and, in my opinion, probably true. The foundation itself has an endowment of $50 billion to work with – the divorce won’t affect that core fund. So, the interpersonal aspects are more important in this case. Warren Buffet was recently added to the board of directors as a Trustee and is also a contributor. This will likely have a stabilizing effect and may have even been planned for that reason – I’m speculating but it makes sense.

As far as interpersonal problems between the couple causing issues around pushing for one charitable interest over another, this has already been addressed. Each member of the couple already has a fully formed enterprise where they can pursue their individual agendas and those have been in place for some time. Bill Gates has Gates Ventures a company first formed after he stepped down from full time work at Microsoft in 2008. His enterprise focuses on clean energy, climate change, education, and health. Melinda French Gates formed her Pivotal Ventures company in 2015 which works on gender equality and social progress. So, each has an outlet for pursuing their individual goals which likely insulates the foundation’s work even more.


Well there you have it! My questions were answered. If you have more questions about nonprofits and charitable organizations, reach out to Jess Birken at here website: birkenlaw.com. For more information, you may also want to check out her podcast: charitytherapy.show.

Audio ForensicsComputer ForensicsCrisis ManagementOnline Reputation ManagementSocial Media

Deepfake: Its Role in Law, Perception, and Crisis Management (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of Experts.com’s Deepfake Blog Series! In case you missed it, check out Part 1. The focus for Part 2 is to delve into the legal ramifications and perceptive dangers of deepfake videos, along with solutions for individuals and organizations who have been negatively affected by deceptive content. Continued insight from Audio, Video, and Photo Clarification and Tampering Expert, Bryan Neumeister, and new knowledge from fellow Experts.com Member and Online Reputation Management Expert, Shannon Wilkinson, will be included in this post.

Due to the relatively new concept and technology of deepfake content, the legal ramifications are not concrete. In fact, admitting deepfake content as evidence in some criminal and civil court cases can be a precarious endeavor because of metadata. According to the Oxford Dictionary, metadata is “information that describes other information.” Think of metadata as information found on a book. Listed is the author’s name, summary of the author, synopsis of the book, the name and location of the publishing company, etc. Metadata answers the same inquiries about videos and photographs on the internet. It has even been used to solve crimes. For example, in 2012, law enforcement found John McAfee, a man who ran from criminal prosecution for the alleged murder of his neighbor, using the metadata from a photo VICE Media, LLC released in an interview with the suspect (NPR). “The problem with metadata is when you upload any video to YouTube or Facebook, the metadata is washed because the user gives up the right to the video,” a statement by Bryan Neumeister. Reasons vary as to why metadata is removed. Some platforms have policies to disregard metadata to expedite the download time for such images and videos. However, it raises concern for those interested in preserving intellectual property (Network World). In addition to the numerous reposts a photo or video acquires, finding the original author of a post on major social media platforms poses a problem for litigants.

Entering evidence into court becomes a Chain of Custody issue (702, 902) through the Daubert Standard, which is a set of criteria used to determine the admissibility of expert witness testimony. Part of Mr. Neumeister’s expertise is to sift through the components (time stamp, camera, exposure, type of lens, etc.) of digital evidence via computer software systems to determine its authenticity or modification. One of the many techniques he uses is to look at the hash value of digital evidence. According to Mr. Neumeister, “Hash values are referred to in Daubert 702 as a way to authenticate. Think about a hash value as a digital fingerprint.” Without this set of numerical data, the most vital piece of proof needed to discern an original from a fake photograph or video, the digital evidence should be ruled as inadmissible by Daubert standards, as there is no chain of custody to a foundational original. Because deepfakes are difficult to track, and perpetrators are mainly anonymous underground individuals with limited assets, prosecuting these cases is a long-term investment without the return. From a moral perspective, justice should be served. With little or no recourse, the frustration is overwhelming for people whose character and financial future have been put in jeopardy.

Deepfakes may be complicated in the legal arena, but in the world of public perception, its role is much more forthright. In recent years, perception has become reality, and this notion rings resoundingly true regarding deepfake content. People who create and publish deceitful content have three main goals: to tarnish a person or company’s reputation, change a narrative, and ultimately influence the public. “Deepfakes are not usually done by big corporations. There is too much at stake. They are usually done by groups that have an intent to cause misdirection,” a direct quote by Mr. Neumeister. The truth about events regarding politicians, or any other public figure, has now become subjective. Like most viral posts, once a deepfake video is released, unless a user participates in research and finds other sources that confirms or denies deceptive material, people will believe what is shown on social media. There are two reasons for this: 1) it confirms an already ingrained bias, and 2) some people would rather trust the information instead of actively looking for sources that contradict the deepfake due to lack of will or information overload. Studies have shown it takes just a few seconds to convince people who are leaning the way a deepfake video is portraying a situation to believe the content. Even if there is a source that has been fact-checked and proves the contrary, the damage to a public figure’s perception has already been done.

For instance, one of the most popular types of deepfakes are centered around pornography. As discussed in Part 1, the General Adversarial Network (GANs) generated deepfake videos have a specific algorithmic structure that accumulates multitudes of any footage and mimics the desired output data. However, its blatantly realistic and high-quality footage is too exaggerated to be an authentic video. To further augment the illusion, people use techniques such as adding background noise, changing the frame rate, and editing footage out of context to make the video more “realistic.” According to Mr. Neumeister, “The more you dirty it up, the harder it is to tell … and then you’ve got enough to make something convincing that a lot of people won’t fact check.” This unfortunate reality, the emergence of different types of deepfake content can ruin the reputations of individuals and businesses across the board. Fortunately, there are methods to managing public perception.

A positive public image is one of the driving forces for success, trust, revenue, and a growing client base. For this reason, malicious and manipulative material found on the internet is threatening. The internet allows everyone to become an author, which gives users the power to post a variety of content ranging from true stories to false narratives. When businesses and organizations find themselves in a fraudulent crisis, “it can impact shareholder value, damage an organization’s reputation and credibility in the eye of consumers and customers, and result in the dismissal or stepping down of a CEO, board members, and/or other key leaders,” stated by Shannon Wilkinson, an Online Reputation Management Expert. Individuals who have less of a digital presence than organizations are more at risk for facing defamatory content. It begs the question, what types of crisis management strategies can business and individuals use to defend themselves against deepfake content?

One of the reasons why crisis emerges for organizations and public figures is due to the lack of proactiveness. Luckily, Ms. Wilkinson has provided numerous tips on how to prioritize reputation management and crisis response to build a “powerful digital firewall.” For reputation management, Ms. Wilkinson recommends:

  • Understanding how one’s business and brand appears to the world.
    • “Each Google page has 10 entries, discounting ads…The fewer you ‘own’ – meaning ones you publish… – the less control you have over your online image,” according to Ms. Wilkinson.
  • Customizing LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.
  • Publishing substantive and high-quality content related to one’s field of expertise or organizations (white papers, blogs, articles, etc.).
  • Scheduling a professional photography session.
  • Creating a personal branding website (ex: http://www.yourname.com).

As for crisis response options, there are two key components businesses and individuals must consider before crafting a recovery plan:

  • Possessing an online monitoring system alerting when one’s brand is trending on social media (ex: Google Alerts and Meltwater)
  • Seeing conversations in real time to augment one’s social presence within those digital spaces.

Below are the recommendations regarding the actual response to a crisis:

  • Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter seem to be the more popular spaces to respond to deepfake content.
  • Updating current and existing information is a vital strategy to counter attacks.
  • Avoid engaging with anonymous commentors and trolls.
  • “Video is an excellent tool for responding to situations that result in televised content. A well-crafted video response posted on YouTube will often be included in that coverage. This strategy is often used by major companies,” a direct quote from Ms. Wilkinson.

The why behind creating, manipulating, and posting deepfakes for the world to see seems to be a moral dilemma. The motives behind uploading such misleading content are different for those who participate but nefarious, nonetheless. Legally, it remains an area of law where justice is not always served. Thanks to our Experts.com Members, Bryan Neumeister and Shannon Wilkinson, the what, when, how, and where aspects of deepfake content have been explained by people who are well-versed in their respective fields. In the height of modern technology and the rampant spread of misinformation, our Experts advise all online users, entrepreneurs, public figures, and anyone with access to the internet adequately fact-check sources encountered on the web. Those associated with businesses or happen to be public figures should prioritize developing crisis management precautions. In Mr. Neumeister’s own words, “People can destroy a city with a bomb, but they can take down a country with a computer.”

Audio ForensicsComputer ForensicsExpert WitnessSocial Media

Deepfake: An Introduction (Part 1)

Computer technology is one of the most pivotal inventions in modern history. Artificial Intelligence, smartphones, social media, and all related apparatus have significantly enhanced living conditions in an unprecedented manner and connected the world with a click of a button. It is used in various occupations: from business related fields to more creative professions. To say modern technology has been advantageous in recent decades is an understatement. However, every creation has its flaws. This multi-part blog series is intended to reveal one of those flaws, and a dangerous one at that, deepfake videos. This first post includes an introduction to deepfake videos, and the steps taken by federal and state governments to identify such duplicitous content. Special insight on the subject is provided by our Experts.com Member and Audio, Video, and Photo Clarification and Tampering Expert, Bryan Neumeister.

Editing footage and photos is normal practice in our selfie-addicted new normal, but creating distorted content is a whole new ballgame. According to CNBC, deepfakes are “falsified videos made by means of deep learning.” These videos, images, audios, or other digital forms of content are manipulated such that counterfeits pass as the real thing. What makes matters worse is the internet allows anyone and everyone to create, edit, and post deceptive content. It is one of many threats to cybersecurity strategists, police departments, politicians, and industries alike because the purpose of making them is to spread misinformation, tarnish reputation’s, exploit evidence, and to ultimately deceive an audience. The unfortunate reality is deepfake videos which display pornographic scenarios and manipulated political moment are the most common. For instance, a notable deepfake video was posted by Buzzfeed in 2018 depicting former United States president, Barack Obama, slandering another former United States president, Donald Trump. However, the voice behind Obama is none other than Jordan Peele. The video was intended as a moral lesson to explain how important it is to verify online sources, and to highlight the dangerous problem of trusting every post uploaded to the internet.

According to Mr. Neumeister, who specializes in this area of expertise, there are two types of artificial intelligence programs used to create deepfake videos: GANs and FUDs. He states, “GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks) are used by professionals, and FUDs (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) are the homemade ones.” Although FUD videos garner more attention among internet users, the real menace to society are the videos made from GANs.

Videos made from Generative Adversarial Networks have an algorithmic framework designed to acquire input data and mimic the desired output data. One can visualize how GANs work through the viral Tom Cruise TikTok deepfake. According to NPR, the creator of the deepfake, Chris Ume, used a machine-learning algorithm to insert an accumulation of Tom Cruise footage. This allowed him to give a digital face transplant to the Tom Cruise lookalike actor he hired for the video. Ume input a plethora of videos to create a desired output of a realistic face swap. Neumeister also adds that the most realistic deepfakes correlate to the amount of footage a person can acquire. Specifically, “the more bits of video clip you have to put together, the more accurate you can make facial movements, ticks, etc.” From this logic, it can be inferred that Ume’s Tom Cruise deepfake looks more realistic than those that lack algorithmic programs.

Because viewers typically see deepfakes in politics and pornography, federal and state governments have recently implemented laws to counteract deepfake content creation and distribution. President Trump signed the first deepfake federal law near the end of 2019. This legislation is included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (NDAA), which is a $738 billion defense policy bill passed by both Senate (86-8) and the House (377-48). The two provisions in the NDAA requires:
“(1) a comprehensive report on the foreign weaponization of deepfakes; (2) requires the government to notify Congress of foreign deepfake-disinformation activities targeting US elections,” (JD Supra). The NDAA also implemented a “Deepfakes Prize” competition to promote the investigation of deepfake-detection technologies. On a state level, there have been laws passed by multiple states that criminalize specific deepfake videos (JD Supra):

  • Virginia: first state to establish criminal penalties on the spread of nonconsensual deepfake pornography.
  • Texas: first state to ban creation and dissemination of deepfake videos aimed to alter elections or harm candidates for public office.
  • California: victims of nonconsensual deepfake pornography can sue for damages; candidates for public office can sue organizations and individuals that maliciously spread election-related deepfakes without warning labels near Election Day.

Although the Trump administration and various states established policies against deepfakes, it remains ubiquitous on almost all online platforms. How can users at home distinguish authentic content from deepfakes?

Mr. Neumeister provides a few tips and tricks for detecting a deepfake. One giveaway mentioned is mouth movement, otherwise known as phonemes and visemes. Mouths move a certain way when people speak. For instance, words like mama, baba, and papa start with a closed mouth. Words like father, and violin start with the front teeth pushing against the bottom lip. To add, consonants and vowels also sound a certain way when pronounced correctly. “Words with t, f, n, o, and wh, are pretty good for tells,” adds Mr. Neumeister. When analyzing video, the frames in which a person is speaking are broken down into approximately six to ten frames to determine if the way someone talks in other videos is the same as the video being analyzed. Another tip Mr. Neumeister suggests is to watch videos with context in mind. Viewers should pay attention to background noise, crowd ambiance, and the cadence in a speaker’s sentences. Authentic and original content would have, by nature, realistic frames. Users can detect a deepfake by sensing dissonance in, for instance, a speaker’s proximity to the microphone or a size of a room. For users at home or on-the-go, these tips are crucial for distinguishing verified sources from manipulated misinformation.

The emergence of deepfake content, its continuously improving technology, and the spread of disinformation is a multifaceted and complex problem. This blog post has only scratched the surface, so stay tuned for part 2 for a more in-depth read.

MarketingPsychology

Consumer Psychology and Streaming Services: The Rise of Disney+ and Netflix

Despite the daunting aspects of COVID-19, the pandemic provided millions of people around the world with an escape from reality: streaming service subscriptions. Netflix, Disney+, and others alike are dominating the entertainment industry. Within the first year after its inception, Disney+ accumulated 86.8 million users and predicts a trajectory of 260 million by 2024 (Variety). In 2020 alone, nearly 37 million people bought Netflix subscriptions, bringing the total number of subscribers to more than 200 million (BBC). On January 20th, 2021, its shares increased by 15% in its fourth quarter earnings (Business Insider). 

What is the catalyst for the success of these two streaming services? Insight from one of our very own Members at Experts.com will help answer these questions. Before delving into these insights, however, it is important to acknowledge the differences between the two streaming services.  

Disney+ is significantly cheaper than its rivals due to its slim library of around 600 movies and shows. However, the type of content it acquires is the gravitational element for its growing audience. Disney+ is the leading content provider for fans of Disney Original Movies, Marvel, Pixar, and “Star Wars” franchises. 

Netflix is known for its high-quality original shows and movies such as “Bridgerton,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and “Marriage Story.” Its international content, like “Lupin” and “La Casa De Papel,” has increasingly appealed to audiences. Unlike Disney+, Netflix also allows consumers to stream movies with family and friends for free with Teleparty. This service may be more expensive, but its library of nearly 4,000 shows is worth the subscription. With these crucial differences in mind, let’s delve into our Experts’ contributions.  

Disney+ leads US brand awareness and subscriber race for new video  streaming services | The Drum

Dr. Brent Coker is an Online Consumer Psychologist with a PhD in Electronic Commerce. He is also a Digital Marketing and Digital Business Models professor at the University of Melbourne. Based on his extensive knowledge on consumer behavior, Dr. Coker believes the rise in streaming entertainment services is indirectly correlated to COVID-19 for a couple of reasons:  

The first is the unexpected lifestyle imposed onto the world by the pandemic. National emergency calls made by various world leaders have induced policies including stay-at-home orders, remote learning and work, as well as limited in-person interaction. This new reality forced consumers to alter purchasing habits from before the virus, like spending more on internet bandwidth for work (which varies by country as some lack unlimited speed plans) rather than tickets for movies or other live performances. “Consumers ‘rationalise’ the extra cost out of necessity (they convince themselves the extra cost is needed not just wanted),” a direct quote from Dr. Coker. This high quality and faster internet further justifies subscribing to streaming services. Disney+ and Netflix’s stellar financial performances are due to the millions of people adjusting to more confined circumstances. 

The second reason is the lack of entertainment options. Because of the new social-distancing guidelines, in-person music festivals, sporting events, and dining at restaurants without restrictions are limited. Coker states, “People divide their entertainment options according to gratification – live performances, stage shows, cinema, and TV.” He then explains the absence of in-person events leads people to search for substitutes. It appears Netflix and Disney+ were the perfect replacement for millions of people this past year.  

MUST-WATCH SHOWS AND MOVIES – THE WATCHDOG

Dr. Coker also alluded to a slight change in advertising and endorsements. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are a few of many social media platforms people use to stay informed and connected. It is also the arena in which influencers use their online presence to promote trends and brands. Dr. Coker mentions Tiger King, one of the first Netflix Original shows to be released just before COVID-19, as a prime example of endorsement through social media. The documentary, especially its eccentric and bizarre main subject, Joe Exotic, became a meme used to draw more attention to audiences around the globe. Memes are “amusing or interesting items (such as captioned picture or video) or genre of items that are spread widely online especially through social media,” (Merriam-Webster). Dr. Coker finalizes his thoughts on social media connectedness by stating, “This is essential endorsement and word-of-mouth thus herding effects as people jump on board to experience what they perceive is the new norm.” 

The requirements of greater internet bandwidth for work, the loss of outdoor entertainment, and the implementation of stay-at-home policies have kindled the need for home entertainment. In 2020 alone, both companies have accrued millions of subscribers. Thanks to our Experts.com Member, Dr. Brent Coker, his insight on Consumer Behavior and Digital Marketing shed light on how the unanticipated lifestyle engendered by COVID-19 indirectly played a role in the purchasing decisions of people around the world and shapes how citizens perceive this new reality through social media. It remains to be seen whether Netflix and Disney+ will perform as well post-pandemic. 

CommunicationInformation & Communication TechnologySocial Media

The Role of Section 230 in the Free Speech Debate

After a tumultuous year full of uncertainty and angst, the start of the new year, unfortunately, followed suit. Due to last week’s raid of the Capitol Building, resulting in Donald Trump’s removal from various social media apps, the debate over the understanding of free speech is in full swing. Some critics say Trump incited violence and rightfully deserved to be permanently banned on Twitter. Others defend the President’s speech and are calling to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This week’s post will define Section 230 and its role in the free speech debate. 

To note, the purpose of creating the Communications Decency Act was to enact provisions to free speech online. Because Internet users opposed these restrictions, Section 230 was enacted in 1996 (Electronic Frontier Foundation). According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “Section 230 provides websites, including social media companies, that host or moderate content generated by others with immunity from liability.” In other words, these companies do not bear the responsibility for its consumers’ speech. Section 230 is inapplicable to Federal Criminal Law and Intellectual Property Claims. Since Twitter is a private company, this legally legitimizes its decision to permanently suspend the President’s account, as he allegedly spread misinformation about the election according to its Terms & Conditions. However, this turn of events has left moderates, conservatives, and republicans feeling silenced.  

Trump’s Twitter ban was the catalyst for the removal of Parler (a social media platform which garnered a primarily conservative following) from Apple and Amazon app stores. Its eradication stems from its anti-censorship brand, meaning it does not monitor its users posts. Unlike Twitter, who uses Section 230 to monitor speech, Parler has the right as a private company to exercise the opposite. It begs the question, is Section 230 relevant to free speech? 

The First Amendment “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition,” (Cornell Law School). Congress is prohibited from making laws which limit an individual’s First Amendment right, whether it is exercised in public physical space or on the internet. From the looks of Trump’s removal from Twitter, it is understandable why conservatives would be upset. The concept of a social media corporation eradicating the leader of the free world’s personal account is shocking, and shows just how much power these social media apps have over what their viewers are allowed to see. For many, these actions by Twitter and Facebook add even more salt to the wounds of the political divide created this past year. At face value, it makes sense why moderate and right-leaning voters would want to repeal Section 230. However, revoking Section 230 is much more threatening to the First Amendment than one might think (USA Today).  

If Section 230 was abrogated, online businesses would monitor speech on a more frequent basis. Websites would become liable for every individual social media post, photo, blog, comment, and video a person publishes. Accommodating user-created content would be a precarious endeavor because these companies could be sued for every contentious post, which is unrealistic considering these websites have accumulated millions of users worldwide. If social media companies and those alike embodied an editorial role towards user-created content, it would end real-time communication, limit expression, tarnish social media providers’ reputations, and even cause them to shut down due to endless litigation. In the event Section 230 is repealed and edited, Congress must be cautious of its constitutional duty to not implement laws that limit the freedoms of American citizens and, unintentionally, chill protected speech. 

Section 230 may protect a business’ right to negate liability for its users’ posts, but it does not protect a company from antitrust lawsuits. Parler sued Amazon in response to its removal from Amazon Web Services, an auxiliary provider of on-demand APIs and cloud-computing platforms (Reuters). Amazon claims Parler’s failure to monitor speech had a large role in planning the siege of the Capitol Building. Although it removed most of the troublesome posts, Parler responded to this by accusing Amazon of breaching its contract by forcing the social media app to shut down. Parler was warned about Amazon’s intolerance to offensive speech, yet Parler argued that any of its users’ posts, that do not engender premeditated action, are protected under the First Amendment. As this is an ongoing case, the outcome of the lawsuit will not be decided for a long time to come. 

Ultimately, Section 230 is arguably the most integral component of the free speech debate considering the recent events of Trump’s Twitter ban and Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon. Free speech within the realm of the internet is a very different arena compared to speech in public physical spaces. As unfortunate as the Capitol Building raid was, it brought to light important nuances of the First Amendment as it relates to the internet.  

BlockchainComputer SecurityCryptocurrency

Bitcoin: The Currency of the Future

The news of Bitcoin’s recent and successful market performance is spreading like wildfire. In the eleven years since its inception, it has surpassed the market value of companies such as Visa, Mastercard, and Walmart (CNN Business). As of the date of this publication, one Bitcoin is being traded for $34,306.17. This incredible feat has made Bitcoin quite popular for investors and people interested in financial markets. However, some critics have raised concerns about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general. Defining Bitcoin, explaining its functions, and addressing the advantages and disadvantages to cryptocurrency will be the subject of this week’s blog post. 

Although the algorithms for the modern-day cryptocurrency have existed since the 1980s, the emergence of Bitcoin has changed the future of financial transactions. Bitcoin’s founding in 2009 is shrouded in mystery. The housing market crash of the same year was the catalyst for its emergence. By whom is the enigma. The founder of Bitcoin is known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The true identity of the person or persons is still unknown.  

Bitcoin is a form of decentralized cryptocurrency. Because its design is public, all transactions are managed by “peer-to-peer” technology instead of banks. Cryptocurrencies are often compared to an online version of dollar bills and can be used to buy and sell services and products. To obtain Bitcoins, people can buy it using “real” money, have people pay for a product using Bitcoin, or “computer-mining,” like searching for gold. Because Bitcoin is essentially a computer file, consumers can store them on a digital wallet, accessed by any smartphone or computer, and even send them to other people. Now that Bitcoin has been defined, it is important to know how it works. 

Bitcoin Mining Is Now More Competitive Than Ever, New Data Shows

When a beginner uses Bitcoin, it generates a Bitcoin address. You can create more than one address and share the addresses with friends and family so transactions can ensue. These addresses can only be used once. Bitcoin has three main functions (Bitcoin):  

  • Function 1: Blockchain – a shared public ledger which all consumers within the Bitcoin network depend on. It includes and verifies all transactions and spendable balances to ensure both are owned by the spender.  
  • Function 2: Transaction – an exchange of value between Bitcoin wallets. Although transactions are included in the blockchain, Bitcoin wallets keep a “private key.” Private keys prove the owners of the transaction. Bitcoin also uses “signatures” to ensure the lack of alterations to the transactions. 
  •  Function 3: Mining – a process which confirms and places the transactions in the blockchain in chronological order. It also bears the responsibility of protecting the neutrality of the Bitcoin network. Transactions are only confirmed when they are compiled in a “block” which includes rigid cryptographic rules approved by the Bitcoin network so previous blocks are not modified. Mining also prohibits individuals from controlling, replacing, or adding blocks and parts of the block chain. In other words, it prohibits theft. 

After defining and explaining Bitcoin’s functions, and as the number of people investing in Bitcoin increases, addressing the benefits and drawbacks of this cryptocurrency are crucial. 

Pros & Cons of Trading Bitcoin & Cryptocurrencies | Paxful Blog

There are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to investing in Bitcoin (Money Crashers). Let’s first discuss its benefits. As previously mentioned, Bitcoin is not controlled by any political or financial institution. These parties can only confiscate or suspend cryptocurrency either for retribution for political acts or for a criminal investigation.  

Bitcoin also has greater liquidity compared to its competitors like Ethereum, IOTA, and Dogecoin. This permits users to keep much of its value when switching to fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar bill. Essentially, out of all the cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin is most like a fiat currency.  

Bitcoin has become widely recognized as a payment method, partially because of their built-in privacy protections. It allows users to distance the account itself from the public persona. Unlike using cash or PayPal transactions where protections are scarce, Bitcoin tracks transactions between users but it is difficult to discover who the users are. Individuals or groups who want to mitigate the use of fiat currency should invest in cryptocurrency, since a plethora of sellers accept Bitcoin payments (Microsoft, Overstock, Etsy, AT&T, Shopify). Even though Bitcoin has inexpensive transaction fees, it also eases the process of international transactions because, like credit card payments and ATM cash withdrawals, it does not require international transaction fees. 

Finally, Bitcoin’s built-in scarcity component inculcates the currency with inherent value like gold and other metals. This supports its lasting value against fiat currencies and non-scarce cryptocurrencies. 

Purchasing Anything on the Black Market With Any Currency Is a Good Thing´  | Op-Ed Bitcoin News

A major inconvenience to using Bitcoin is the lack of policy regarding refunds and chargebacks. Because of its decentralized design, it is extremely difficult for users to dispute transactions. Even though miners are responsible for recording the transactions, it cannot prove the legitimacy of those transactions. 

Bitcoin’s reputation as the world’s most popular cryptocurrency precedes itself, so much so that it becomes vulnerable to fraud cases. Examples include the small-scale Ponzi scheme with Bitcoin Savings & Trust to grand-scale hacks such as the infiltrations of Sheep Marketplace and Mt. Gox, which were bilked of hundreds of thousands of Bitcoins. To add, Bitcoin attracts groups and individuals involved with the black market due to its inherent anonymity protections. Ultimately, Bitcoin’s competitors do not acquire nearly the number of users to engender maliciously profitable activity for criminals. If fiat currency were used, such crimes would be prosecuted by law enforcement (see Member Dr. Stephen Castell’s recent article on the subject).  

There is the exception of people who are converting to newer cryptocurrencies. Depending on the type of cryptocurrency, these services either eliminate third-party involvement in transactions or use “smart contracts.” These contracts hold the cryptocurrency providers liable for their offerings. If the number of people leaving Bitcoin for another service increases, then its value would certainly decrease.   

As previously mentioned, an advantage to Bitcoin is its liquidity and ability to be easily exchanged. However, it becomes susceptible to unpredictable price swings within small time intervals. For instance, after the FBI announced the legitimacy of Bitcoin as a financial service, its value skyrocketed in late 2017 and yet halved at the start of 2018 due to the Mt. Gox hack. These decimated billions of dollars of the market value instantly. 

Lastly, Bitcoin mining weakens the environment because it exhausts large quantities of electricity. The source of power for Bitcoin stems from coal plants. When mining occurs, the amount of electricity used directly correlates to the vast amounts of air pollutants released into the atmosphere, creating difficulty for surrounding citizens to breathe.  

As the world transitions into a virtual age, and the value of fiat currency remains in flux, people face the crucial decision to either invest in cryptocurrency or continue with their current monetary choices. For those looking to invest in Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, hopefully this blog post provides general insight and clarity for future financial endeavors.  

Sources: 

https://bitcoin.org/en/how-it-works

https://www.moneycrashers.com/bitcoin-history-how-it-works-pros-cons/

Criminal JusticeEvidenceForensic DNA

New DNA Restoration Technology Helps South Korea Police Solve 33-Year-Long Murder Case

Due to advancements in DNA technology, a 33-year-long murder mystery has finally been solved. The most infamous serial killing case in South Korea, otherwise known as the Hwaseong murders (1986-1991), resulted in the death of 10 women and girls. The true killer, Lee Chun-jae (pictured below), admitted to 30 rapes and 14 murders, 9 of which were part of the Hwaseong murder cases.  

The Korean Zodiac Killer: Lee Choon-Jae and the Hwaseong Serial Murder –  Serial Killer Shop

What instigated the confession was a recent discovery in DNA restoration technology. This new forensic advancement has allowed police and other government agencies to identify DNA that either could not be identified at the time it was processed or even after long periods of time, as in this case. The South Korean Police conducted a comparison between samples of DNA from a victim’s underwear with the DNA database of prisoners at the penitentiary. The outcome identified Lee as the culprit, who was already facing a life sentence for the last 2 decades for his sister-in-law’s rape and murder. He told the court that he “was surprised he wasn’t caught earlier,” (CNN). Lee also told reporters that he did not try to hide his crimes. Though detectives asked him questions, they were always about other people. The DNA results also confirmed the innocence of the man arrested for Lee’s crimes.  

In 2008, a person named Yoon, whose full name cannot be released for legal reasons, was freed after spending 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, a murder victim from the Hwaseong cases. Last year, the DNA evidence was released, thus confirming Yoon’s innocence. Yoon was granted a retrial, and his lawyers are currently in the process of overturning his conviction. He told CNN, “I want to clear my false accusation, and I want my honor back.”  

South Korean investigators examine a crime scene in Hwaseong, South Korea in 1993, following a spate of murders.

Suffice it to say, at the time of the murders, there were some discrepancies in the investigation. The Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency Chief, Bae Yong-ju, admitted to ABC News that Yoon was mistreated by the police to the point where he made a false confession under coercion. The police involved in the case have issued a public apology to Lee Chun-jae’s victims, their families, and Yoon, a victim of the failed police investigation. Yoon, outraged from being subjected to years of injustice, aspires to continue his life as a free and innocent man. 

So, what happens next? Lee Chun-jae will not be facing prosecution for the Hwaseong murders. The statute of limitations on the case has expired. However, he will continue to live out the rest of his life in prison for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. Thanks to advances in DNA technology, grave mistakes, like those found in this case, will hopefully be reduced.  

ComputersEmploymentHuman ResourcesOrganizational Development

The Future of the Office in a Post-Pandemic World

As we endure almost ten months of living through a pandemic, we can all agree COVID-19 has brought about various changes and challenges. The pandemic has affected every aspect of daily life. Worrying when items will be restocked in local grocery stores, wondering when the next stimulus check will arrive in the mail, and keeping ourselves and families safe from the virus have been at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Although millions of jobs have been lost this year, people who are lucky enough to either have found or kept his/her job now deal with working-from-home. Because the workforce is now conducting a 180 towards online practices, the future of offices in a post-pandemic world is pending. 

According to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford Economist, “we’re in the middle of a structural, seismic shift,” in the workplace. Working-from-home is not a new concept, there are jobs that are designed specifically for remote locations and travel. The problem is millions of people are now forced to adapt to new working conditions in order to slow the spread of the virus, putting the world’s technological advancements to the test. To ensure productivity through a tumultuous time, businesses are instantly tasked with reimagining the role of work and creating a positive environment for their employees. Both individuals and organizations face benefits and drawbacks from this uncontrollable shift.  

Some employees love the working-from-home lifestyle. For busy individuals or employees who have families, working-from-home creates flexibility in his/her work schedule, allowing time to complete daily errands and appointments. A surprising “36% (of employees) would choose it (remote work) over a pay raise,” a statistic from Global Workplace Analytics. Working-from-home also allows people to save money on clothesgas, and food costs that they would otherwise need for the workplace. Lastly, working remotely does not necessarily mean people are tethered to their homes. Computers and smartphones allow people to work from any location, including coffee shops, parks, and even planes. Having the choice of when and where you work is the appealing aspect of working remotely.  

While working from home has been successful for some people, it has caused great strife for others. Merging the personal and professional components of life is not an easy feat. This sudden disruption of daily routines adds physical, mental, and emotional anxiety. For those with families, balancing the work load may be difficult with children under foot. To add, the lack of in-person communication creates a sense of isolation and loneliness, which could decrease productivity. To combat these hardships, employees and employers who work-from-home must dedicate some time to maintain his/her health and wellness by exercising, connecting with family and friends, and finding activities that bring happiness to the day.  

Although companies who adopt the work-from-home method implement different policies, the general pros and cons seem to be consistent for most businesses. According to Global Workplace Analytics, “A number of states, including Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon offer financial incentives for businesses to adopt telework.” The benefits are not limited to financial incentives. States such as Arizona and Connecticut offer free training to businesses willing to convert to remote work. Also, working from home is environmentally friendly. The rate of office equipment energy consumption is twice that of energy consumption from a person’s home. Businesses save money by participating in the work-from-home method and improving the conditions of the planet one step at a time. Finally, remote work is slowly increasing the hiring pool because it provides geographic diversity that would not have been possible pre-pandemic. 

For CEOs, managers, and other team leaders within an organization, being unable to convene at an office can be difficult. The absence of a physical space forces people on all levels of the organizational hierarchy to interact through digital means. Face-to-face communication has been limited to video conferences on sites such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts. Projects, presentations, sales pitches, settlements, and other types of meetings are conducted through a computer or phone, which increases the chance of miscommunication and technological difficulties. This quick transition to telework also increases management mistrust.  As many as “75% of managers say they trust their employee, but a third say they’d like to be able to see them, just to be sure,” stated by Global Workplace Analytics. Working from home provides a flexible schedule for employees, but it is also their responsibility to accomplish the required tasks and not abuse the time allotted to do so. Companies must make strides to embrace remote work as part of the new norm by setting and measuring goals for employees.  

Ultimately, there are advantages and disadvantages to working from home and the office. Many companies adopt the hybrid model where employees do both, and this is most likely what the future holds in store for the modern-day workforce. For both businesses and employees, the balance between work and personal life has become a priority during the height of the pandemic. The work-from-home model not only relieves some of the stress imposed by the pandemic but allows people who work in non-online industries, such as healthcare and construction, to safely tend to their job. Whether businesses go back to the office or not, it has been reassuring to know that many industries and individuals have the technological capability and resources to work from home during a global pandemic. 

AdvertisingInformation & Communication TechnologySearch Engine OptimizationSEO

Google Antitrust (Part 1): Search Engine Optimization, Or Monopolization?

On October 20th, 2020, The United States government, along with several states (AR, FL, GA, IN, KY, LA, MS, MO, MT SC, and TX), filed an antitrust lawsuit against technology company, Google LLC, for illicitly continuing monopolies in general search services, general search text advertising, and search advertising. Google has been accused of maintaining control of these markets through exclusionary practices, which prohibits the expansion of competition throughout the internet technology industry. The basis for this accusation is Google’s alleged violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2, which bans monopolies in trade and commerce. Along with previous antitrust cases, it is important to review the nature of the lawsuit. Since Google is being accused of antitrust in several areas, the case’s foundation will be broken up into two sections.

1. General Search Services: Within the last twenty years, Google has transitioned from a new start-up to one of the richest companies on Earth, making as much as $160 billion a year. Because search engines are dispersed throughout a variety of devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, user search queries in the United States have surged in the last decade. Search engines are the most effective when they are set as the default. For example, if a consumer uses a Dell, they are more likely to have Bing as the default search engine, unless the user changes it to Google, Firefox, etc., which rarely occurs. In addition, Google pays billions to a plethora of distributors spanning from device manufacturers, wireless carriers, and browser developers to set their search engine services as the default. Because Google pays companies like Apple, Motorola, Mozilla, AT&T, and UCWeb to secure their search engine as the default, along with the lack of users changing their default engine themselves, the lawsuit alleges the deals made by Google were intended to eliminate competition among other search engine providers. In fact, 90% of all generated-search engine queries have been searched through Google. It does not cost anything to search online. So, it begs the question: how were they able to make billions of dollars?

Google Search adding site favicons to every result - 9to5Google

2. Search Advertising/General Search Text Advertising: Google utilizes consumer information and search queries to sell advertising. Since Google is the default search engine for various devices, they receive almost $40 billion from advertisers to place ads on their search engine results pages (SERP). Because Google receives 90% of search engine traffic (that’s billions of eyeballs on tailored ads), these deals create difficulty for smaller rival search businesses to compete and incentivizes advertisers to stay with Google rather than switching to another company that cannot perform on such a grand scale. The services Google provides require intricate algorithms which collect vast amounts of data used to tailor content based on a user’s search query. For example, if you search holiday discounts for a Keurig coffee maker, you might see an ad for the exact search entry two days later, which is what advertisers want. These deals ultimately engender a continuous cycle of anticompetitive behavior from Google and thwart potential competition, giving the United States government and various states another reason to issue an antitrust lawsuit.

With the nature of the case in mind, Google’s ever-growing power is concerning. Is Big Tech too influential in the economic and advertising sectors? Shouldn’t consumers be aware of Google’s seemingly anticompetitive tactics? As the world continues to enter a digital age, how will this case change the ways in which internet companies conduct business ventures? Stay tuned as our Experts.com Members give their input on the subject in Part 2: coming soon.

Expert WitnessUncategorized

Fake Police Officer Scam Targeting Expert Witnesses

Mental health professionals are being targeted by a failure to appear scam. The first scam we’ve seen targeting expert witnesses.

This is the first blog post I’ve written that falls directly into the “public service announcement” category. Yesterday morning, I saw an article by the Washington Post where the author describes a telephone-based scam, where perpetrators pretend to be police officers.

The story grabbed my attention because the suspects have a little deeper knowledge about prospective victims. They know enough to know you are likely to act as an expert witness.

The caller, impersonating a police officer, claims the victim failed to appear at a court hearing in which they were subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness. The criminal claims to be an officer and provides the real name of an an officer employed at the local law enforcement agency, which can be confirmed online. The victim is told they have a civil option to pay a fine and avoid jail time.

As recounted in the Washington Post article, “The problem, the alleged detective stressed, was that because of the coronavirus, people couldn’t come into police headquarters to settle such matters. He said she needed to purchase “MoneyPak” electronic cash transfer cards — at one point transferring the call to his purported supervisor, who also had assumed the name of a real Montgomery officer.”

You need to start asking questions at this time! Have them send you some documentation in the mail. Have them personally serve you the paperwork. Do not get frightened by someone claiming to be an authority figure over the phone. That’s their goal! Get you nervous and acting irrationally.

The option to pay a fine should immediately get your attention. Not to mention this silliness of paying with “electronic cash transfer cards.” There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to pay a fine with a check or credit card.

If you are accused of missing are accused of missing a court hearing. You should know that police officers, detectives, investigators, are not usually those responsible for collecting fines. Generally that’s a different department.

Scam Has Been Taking Place for a While:

Although this fake police officer scam targeting mental health professionals, took place in Maryland. However, in preparing to write this post, I did a little research and found that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had also warned about this type of a scam back in 2019. Here is their press release on the subject. The LAPD specifically mentioned therapists and psychologists as more likely to be targeted:

“It should be noted that many of the victims are current/former employees in the mental health industry. In each of these incidents, the caller claimed that the victim missed an appearance as an expert witness in a court case. Therapists and psychologists should particularly beware of the scam. You can get help determining the authenticity of a call by contacting your local police station.”

CommunicationPoliticsPsychology

First Presidential Debate: Even Experts Say It Was “Painful to Watch”

To say 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year would be an understatement. After enduring a global pandemic, the arrival of murder hornets, Australian and West Coast wildfires, and so on, it appears the world can’t catch a break. For the United States in particular, politics has added fuel to the fire. The seemingly exhausting nature of the country’s current political environment is one that cannot be ignored, as the election in November is quickly approaching. The future Commander in Chief of the nation is in the hands of voters from two extremely divided political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. However, the outcome of the recent presidential debate lacked the information needed for voters to make an important decision: who they want to take the Oval Office.  

On September 29th, the first presidential debate for the 2020 election took place at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion in Clevland, Ohio. Assuming the election will be a close race, this has certainly been the most anticipated debate in American history. Republican nominee and current President of the United States, Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee and former Vice President under the Obama Administration, Joe Biden, battled it out face-to-face on the debate stage with Fox News Sunday anchor, Chris Wallace, as the moderator. Although the set topics included the coronavirus pandemic, economy, systemic racism, and healthcare, anything but those subjects were addressed. This may not have given voters much to work with, however, linguistspsychologists, and body language experts had a field day analyzing the candidates’ performances. Let’s discuss the verbal and nonverbal cues that made this debate, in the words of body language expert, Patti Woods, “painful to watch.”  

The policies Trump and Biden represent are not the only factors that distinguish these candidates. Both nominees exemplified different behavioral approaches regarding how they answered Wallace’s questions and responded to their opponent. Some experts believe Trump’s strategy was based on anger. Woods told The Independent, “Anger is the strongest persuasive emotion… His choice to be on the attack, nonverbally he did that very specifically by looking at Biden when he was interrupting and talking over him and turning his upper body toward him.” She also claimed the painful aspect of the debate was Trump’s bully-like behavior, which is not typically seen during debates of such stature as those held for elected officials. Trump’s interjections are also an example of Face-Threatening Action. Brian Larson, an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, told Inverse, “It’s (Face-Threatening Action) a specific type of interruption intended to diminish social power.” The purpose of these interruptions is to not only accelerate the pace of the debate, but to cause Biden to retract, clarify, and correct statements. Other experts believed Trump’s demeanor made him look like a strong leader. Lillian Glass, a body language expert, told Boston Globe, “His body movements matched his emotions and what he had to say… there was not a lot of levity.” 

Biden, on the other hand, had a much more welcoming and laid-back approach according to experts. Woods stated that Biden’s decision to look at the camera and address the audience with a smile could be seen as self-control. Other experts, like Chris Ulrich, a behavioral body language expert, believed his direct statements toward the camera was his attempt to make a connection to voters and establish a “transference of power” (Boston Globe). Larson noticed Biden’s language was casual. For instance, when the debate started, Biden greeted President Trump by saying, “How you doing, man?” This happened again when Trump interrupted Chris Wallace and Biden exclaimed, “Will you shut up, man?” According to Larson, Biden’s informal language helped abate the perceived power dynamics that were present due to Trump’s interjections and his role as President. Glass thought Biden’s decision to directly speak to the viewers was inappropriate. She believes debaters should be looking at their opponent or the moderator. Based on this notion, Biden’s actions could have displeased many viewers.  

First Trump-Biden debate ends with many insults, little substance | WITF

So, based on body language alone, which presidential candidate won the first debate? Well, every expert has their own opinion and interpretation of what occurred. According to Glass, Trump won the debate. Trump’s disposition was in sync with his body language. In moments when he needed to be serious, his physical stance and gestures correlated with his verbal statements. Although it reads as aggressive and obnoxious, Trump was unwavering in his decisions to argue, interrupt, and defend. Glass felt Biden failed to present himself as a leader because his gestures were more rehearsed. In moments when Trump refuted him, for instance, when the Green New Deal was discussed, Biden would smile during confrontation and used coached motions like pinching his thumb and finger to demonstrate a point. However, Woods suggests that Biden won the debate. Unlike Trump, Biden established a connection with voters by making direct eye contact with the camera. He explained his policies and plans to the American people, the 328 million citizens responsible for electing the 46th President of the United States of America. Because Trump was constantly interrupting Biden, along with his lack of rapport with viewers, he was perceived as a bully.  

Now that America’s disappointment in the first presidential debate is common knowledge, and considering all divisive information has arisen in the meantime, it will be interesting to see how effective Trump and Biden’s communication skills will be during the final debate this Thursday, October 22nd, 2020. 

Criminal LawExpert WitnessForensic PsychiatryFraudUncategorized

Elizabeth Holmes Fraud Trial: Mental Disease & Defect Defense

Before Nikola and the Trevor Milton scandal, there was a prominent blood-testing startup called Theranos. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, currently faces a criminal fraud trial.

If you’ve been tuning into business news recently, the latest scandal with Nikola, a electric-powered truck manufacturer, and its founder, Trevor Milton, is no surprise to you.

For those who have not been following along, a quick summary is as follows: Nikola (NKLA) recently became a publicly traded company alleging they had hydrogen fuel cell (battery) technology that would revolutionize the trucking business. The stock did well after IPO. Nikola then did a multi-billion dollar deal with General Motors. The stock went higher. A few days after the GM deal, a short-seller released a report that accused them of a being an intricately constructed fraud. The founder, Trevor Milton, contested the accusations on social media and asked for time so he could rebut all of the allegations. Within a couple of days he went silent, was removed as executive chairman, and deactivated his social media accounts. It has been widely reported that both the SEC and DOJ are conducting investigations related to his actions and claims as founder and executive chairman.

I share that story because some news agencies have suggested Trevor Milton’s story is similar to that of Theranos founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Ms. Holmes is now facing a criminal fraud trial and she is the focus of our our post today. Stay tuned next week for some further discussion on the issues surrounding Nikola.

Background:

Elizabeth Holmes founded a privately held biotechnology company called Theranos. The company intended to revolutionize blood tests, with just a drop of blood. No more needles and vials, just a small drop of blood, and the tests results would be available rapidly. Ultimately, they failed to deliver tangible results and led consumers to believe false promises. After receiving more than $700 million in private investment, the company began falling apart.

In Spring 2018, Holmes was charged with fraud by the SEC, as reported by Bloomberg. This being a civil action, Holmes settled it without admitting any of the allegations. The settlement required her to relinquish her shares to the company and abstain from being an officer or director of a public company for a period of 10 years. There was also a fine, according to Barron’s. To the best of my recollection, Ms. Holme’s settled with the SEC on the same day she was charged.

In the Summer of 2018, the US Attorney’s office filed charges against Holmes’ for conspiracy and wire fraud, as reported by CNN. This criminal indictment is the inspiration for this blog post.

For more than 2 years, we’ve followed the developments in the criminal prosecution of Elizabeth Holmes, wondering if it would lead us to an interesting analysis from an expert witness perspective. In September of 2020, I found this article from the New York Daily News. It seems Ms. Holmes is preparing for the use of a “mental disease or defect” defense.

More specifically, the article from the New York Daily News, indicated the judge had assigned a neuropsychologist and psychiatrist to conduct a two-day, 14 hour evaluation of Ms. Holmes. Additionally, this evaluation is to be recorded. Now, I had never heard of psychological evaluation being this long and I worked in the mental health field for years before joining Experts.com.

To the best of my knowledge, I had not heard about the “mental disease or defect” defense since law school. I remembered it as a mitigating factor to a crime. Something we learned about when we learned about defenses and factors related to defenses.

So, I did what I usually do with these blog posts, and reached out to the experts. This time, I thought it would be good to get insights from a federal public defender and a psychiatrist.

First, let’s see get a view of the legal opinion…

Analysis from Federal Defense Attorney, Diego Alcalá-Laboy:

Diego Alcalá-Laboy is a criminal defense attorney with his own practice Defensoria Legal, LLC, in Puerto Rico, where he represents federal criminal defendants and advises startups. He is also an adjunct professor at the Inter-American University, School of Law and teaches the Federal Evidence and Federal Criminal Procedure courses at the University of Puerto Rico Law School’s Federal Bar Review.

Nick Rishwain: Why would one use a defense of “mental disease” and what impact might it have on the case?

Diego Alcala: A prosecutor must prove that a defendant intended to commit an act (mens rea), and that he committed the act (actus rea). And most crimes require that the defendant acted intelligently, knowingly, or willfully, and on some occasions recklessly or negligently. The type of “mens rea” a crime requires is defined by Congress and the interpretations given by the courts. On some occasions, an offense may not even require a mens rea, such as with strict liability offenses.

Crimes may have different elements, and a prosecutor may have to prove that the defendant had the required mens rea to commit each element of the offense. If the prosecutor cannot prove this, the defendant may be found not guilty.

Congress also recognized that a defendant may show that because of a medical defect he was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of his or her acts because of a severe mental disease or defect. After the John Hinkley trial, Congress amended its statutes and eliminated the affirmative defense of diminished capacity but allowed a defendant the possibility to attack an element of an offense because of a mental condition.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. The Courts are the gatekeepers of the any scientific testimony intended to be presented at trial. Therefore, whenever a defense of mental defect is offered by a defendant, the Court must ensure that the evidence offered is grounded in sufficient scientific support. This scientific evidence then must be scientifically sound and must also show that the medical condition negates mens rea of an element of the offense. So, a defense of mental defect, if grounded on scientific basis, and shows that it negates an element of the charged crime, will clear the defendant from a particular case.

NR: Have you ever seen a “mental disease” defense used in a criminal fraud matter?

DA: I have never seen a mental disease defense presented before. But I did find some cases where the defense tried to introduce this type of evidence but was ruled inadmissible because it did not satisfy the Court that the proffered evidence: a) was based on sound scientific principles, or b) even if it was based on sound principles, it failed to negate mens rea for the element(s) of the offense. In fraud cases, a defendant is accused of committing some type of false representation. It follows that the evidence of mental disease must show that if his/her medical condition can be logically connected to a subjective belief that his/her assertions were not false, baseless, or reckless vis-a-vis the truth.[1] I have not found a fraud case in which the defense has been able to overcome this burden.

NR: If it is established that Elizabeth Holmes is suffering from “mental disease,” can she still be held criminally liable for her actions?

DA: If a defendant presents a successful mental disease defense, the federal law states that she will be found not guilty. But a finding of not guilty does not necessarily mean that she is free to leave. A determination of not guilty by reason of mental defect will then place a defendant in a “suitable facility” and may be release only after showing that she is no longer a threat.

NR: Does a “mental disease” defense have much success in federal criminal trials?

DA: As mentioned, I have not found a successful case, and primarily the difficulty lies in the very narrow type of cases that may meet the discussed admissibility standard. Even if she can get this evidence into trial, it is still up to the jury to accept this defense.


Now that we have some idea of the application of the law for fraud in federal criminal cases, we need to review the science as outlined by Mr. Alcalá.

Analysis from Forensic Psychiatrist and Expert Witness Dr. Sanjay Adhia:

Dr. Sanjay Adhia is triple-Board-Certified in Forensic Psychiatry, Brain Injury Medicine, and Psychiatry. Dr. Adhia serves as a Psychiatrist and Brain Injury Medicine specialist at TIRR Hermann Memorial, a Rehabilitation and Research hospital treating those with brain and spinal cord injuries and psychiatric elements of their injury and recovery. In private forensic practice he conducts Independent Medical Examinations (IMEs), and renders his opinions by report and testimony. Dr. Adhia serves on the faculty of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. You can visit his website at: forensicpsychiatrynow.com.

Nick Rishwain: According to the psychiatric community, what constitutes “mental disease” and “mental defect?”

Sanjay Adhia, MD: These are more legal terms rather than actual formal psychiatric definitions.

According to Merriam-Webster, the legal definition of “mental disease” is “an abnormal mental condition that interferes with mental or emotional processes and internal behavioral control and that is not manifest only in repeated criminal or antisocial conduct”.

Examples would include Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder and Bipolar Disorder which are considered Severe Mental Illness (SMI). These conditions may lead to psychiatric hospitalization. The conditions maybe associated with and loss of touch with reality and a lack of volitional control.

“Mental defect,” on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “an abnormal mental condition (as mental retardation) that may be of a more fixed nature than a mental disease”.   “Fixed” disorders would include Intellectual Developmental Disorder (IDD; formerly known as mental retardation), Autism and Brain Injury. According to this definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) would be excluded. ASPD is marked by a tendency to lie, break laws, and act impulsively. It shares some features with psychopathy or sociopathy. A number of states do not permit the use of ASPD in the insanity defense.[2] Allowing ASPD would have unintended repercussions. For example, it could potentially permit a defendant like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer to avoid prison.

NR: In the court order, it limits the evaluation of Ms. Holmes to a 14 hour, 2-day, psychiatric examination. Is this out of the ordinary in a criminal matter?

SA: There is a wide range of exam times in criminal cases. It would depend on a variety of factors including the type of case, the jurisdiction, the funding available and the severity of the charge. Assessment time in a misdemeanor will not be identical to a capital case. Ms. Holmes’ case is not a capital case, but it helps to understand differences in how long the examination might take. The exam time in a Competency to Stand Trial for a misdemeanor trespassing case would likely be under two hours. I have seen some examiners spend 30 minutes for the interview in such cases. The other extreme would be Capital cases which could go over 8 hours or several days; this is especially true if neurocognitive testing is required, which can take an entire day.

Again, in a capital case the threshold and the stakes are very high—especially in death penalty cases that often go to the appeals court.

In misdemeanor cases, you may have a single mental health expert and the findings may be accepted without the need for an opposing expert. In Capital cases, the defense itself may retain several mental health and other medical experts (i.e. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome experts). In the Holmes case, the 14 hours is to be shared between a forensic neuropsychologist and a forensic psychiatrist.

As it is a high-profile case, it is possible that the court may allow additional funds or there maybe a willingness of the expert to work within a budget.

It is my experience that the examination in insanity cases take more time than other types of cases as you have to elicit a detailed account of the crime from the defendant and then determine the mental state at a time in the past and consider malingering (lying for secondary gain—like a lesser sentence). I suspect in the Holmes case, it is likely the charges are not limited to one circumscribed incident so it could take additional time. It is worth noting that time spent reviewing records and preparing a report could exceed twenty hours or more.

NR: What information might you need to establish or rebut an insanity defense?

SA: In addition to interviewing the defendant, it would be helpful to review medical records, legal records along with police records and videos. I often will interview collateral informants as well. In Ms. Holmes’s case there maybe, media accounts, if admissible, as well as financial records and corporate documents. Of course, an expert would review the other expert witness reports. Records in a violent crime could include an autopsy, or blood splatter expert reports, for example. In the Holmes case, there may be a forensic accounting or fraud expert report.  Other sources of data could include polygraph testing, school records and employment records.

NR: In the Holmes case, the defense has retained a trauma expert. Is it common to successfully assert an insanity defense in cases of PTSD?

SA: Insanity defenses are more commonly associated with other diagnoses that are considered to be more severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and IDD because they have a different impact on decision-making and regulating behavior. Although many individuals with PTSD do suffer with severe symptoms, they are generally able to maintain awareness of the nature of their acts and appreciate the wrongfulness of such acts. In jurisdictions that allow for the volitional prong, individuals with PTSD are generally considered to be able to behave lawfully. Of course, there are cases where PTSD is successfully asserted as an insanity defense.[3] In cases where the defense attorney realizes the PTSD does not lend itself for an insanity defense, they may successfully utilize it for sentence mitigation.


[1] United States v. Bennett, 29 F. Supp. 2d 236 (E.D.Pa. 1997), aff’d 161 F.3d 171, 183 (3d Cir.1998), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 819, 120 S. Ct. 61, 145 L. Ed. 2d 53 (1999)

[2]Does A Psychopath Who Kills Get to Use the Insanity Defense? NPR, 8/3/16, by NATALIE JACEWICZ

[3]PTSD as a Criminal Defense: A Review of Case Law by Omri Berger, Dale E. McNiel and Renée L. Binder; Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online December 2012, 40 (4) 509-521;

TikTok Logo
Computer SecurityComputersInformation & Communication TechnologySocial Media

TikTok: Is It The Next Cyber-Security Threat?

TikTok has been the most downloaded app globally in 2020. Although it has existed since 2018, TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads back in April, during the apex of the new socially-distanced reality engendered by the pandemic. The ability to share and create content such as comedy skits, dance challenges, and lip-syncing clips, has appealed to various age groups around the world, especially teenagers. However, TikTok has been at the center of controversy for raising cyber security concerns not just here in the United States, but around the world. 

The problem with TikTok is twofold. The first issue is the app is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. Because ByteDance is not American-based, it does not follow U.S. federal and state consumer privacy laws. TikTok announced the data collected by American users is backed-up in Singapore, which is not subject to Chinese law. Though true, it is possible the Chinese government could pressure ByteDance to relinquish its user information. 

Second, TikTok has a large accumulation of data related to the types of videos Americans watch and post. Because it has turned into an important platform for political activism, people are worried the Chinese government could influence public opinion and control speech. For instance, according to both The Guardian and The Intercept, last year, TikTok company officials told their employees to censor content considered sensitive to Beijing. TikTok claimed their policies were outdated when the reports were released. As a result of this incident, they established a “transparency center” so security and technology experts from around the world can observe their policies. 

Despite TikTok’s official statement, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order in August declaring the prohibition of all business with ByteDance. Unless ByteDance announces a plan to sell TikTok, the app will be banned on September 29th, 2020. Several American agencies and companies, such as the U.S. Army and Wells Fargo, have been proactive, requiring servicemen and employees to uninstall the app in response to these security concerns. Other countries, like India, have followed suit, banning the app altogether. 

Many people, including computer security experts, believe banning the app in the United States would be an extreme course of action. Not only would it invite questions about censorship in a free country right before an election, but it would affect various companies here in the U.S. who use the platform for marketing purposes. A solution technology experts have mentioned is to implement policies for protecting consumer privacy and measures to minimize data misuse from companies around the world. Currently, with the exception of a few state laws, the responsibility of American privacy and data sharing belongs to companies such as TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter. 

On September 14th, 2020, ByteDance accepted Oracle’s proposal to be their new technology provider. This means Oracle would be held accountable for protecting all user information collected through TikTok. Although this deal is pending approval by the U.S. government, this would keep businesses invested in TikTok afloat and allow up to 100 million users to continue posting creative content. Tresury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, told CNBC that the government will be reviewing the proposal this week, as their top priority is to keep American user data from the Chinese Communist Party.   

Four days later, the U.S. government announced the removal of TikTok and fellow Chinese app, WeChat, from American app stores supplied by Apple and Google. Distribution, updates, and maintenance will be expelled for purchase unless the Trump administration, TikTok, and Oracle can close a deal by September 20th. Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, told Bloomberg WeChat would be shut down for practical purposes, but Americans could still use the app for payments in China and talk to loved ones overseas. He added TikTok’s official shut down is scheduled after November 12th if the deal with Oracle falls through.  

On Monday, September 21st, 2020, President Trump announced his approval of the deal between Oracle and TikTok. As a result of the ongoing proposal, Oracle and Walmart will share a 20% stake in TikTok Global, a new company headquartered in the United States. ByteDance will own 80% of TikTok Global and allow Oracle to review its source code. Ceding algorithms and other technologies was not included in the deal. Allowing Oracle to review the source code is still not fool-proof as ByteDance could easily instruct the code to send data back to China in secret. Trump’s approval has postponed the ban for now, but the removal of TikTok through American app stores is still in effect. As relations between the United States and China remain tumultuous, the final outcome of the TikTok debate remains to be seen. 

DepositionExpert Witness

Increasing Use of Remote Depositions – Expert Witness Best Practices

Remote depositions appear to be growing. As an expert witness, what should you do to improve your presentation and performance to maintain credibility and authority?

As more professionals work from home, remote depositions will continue to rise in popularity and usage. But, the extent of the rise is hard to tell since there is a lack of any hard data on the subject. One of our contributors, Isaiah Leslie, has provided some anecdotal information on the subject. We know court hearings and administrative meetings are taking place remotely. In an article from the Fort Worth Star Telegram, we learn about what may be the first remote jury trial in the U.S., which occurred in Texas. With an increase in remote hearings, depositions, and even jury trials, we wanted to give you some information about presentation and performance as an expert witness in remote deposition.

There have been an abundance of articles discussing remote depositions, but none of them appear to cover best practices for the deponent and, relevant to Experts.com members, the expert witness. Instead, the articles discuss the law permitting remote depositions; the local rules to be followed; agreements between lawyers about sharing of discoverable information; procedures for exhibits; whether the deposition is going to be taken by video conference or the deposition is being video recorded; and operation of several of the remote video platforms. The information is important for all parties to a litigation, but none of it helpful to the deponent.

To this end, I had to do some digging and contact a bunch of folks for their insights. We received some great feedback from court reporters, court videographers, and live video marketing professionals. Below is a summary of suggested best practices for expert witnesses before and during a remote deposition, focusing on presentation, apparel, lighting, audio, video, and overall performance.

Increase in Remote Depositions:

One of our contributors, Isaiah Leslie, a co-founder and partner at Regal Court Reporting, provided us with the best data on the increase in remote depositions from his company’s personal experience. In March of 2020, only 2.6% of their depositions were remote. By April, all of their depositions were remote, increasing by 550%. Although remote depositions have not outnumbered their previous in-person deposition numbers, as Isaiah noted, the adoption is still significant.

The increase in remote depositions makes sense, given the shelter-in-place orders throughout the country. Many of those who adopted remote deposition by necessity have discovered its advantages. By no means am I suggesting remote depositions would replace in-person depositions entirely. However, as legal professionals become more comfortable with videoconferencing technology, it’s reasonable to anticipate continued growth in remote depositions even after COVID-19.

Legal system participants are likely to realize, if they have not already, the value of videoconferencing. It is convenient for all involved, as there is no need to travel to the deposition location. Reduced travel should lower litigation costs as parties will no longer have to pay for travel time and costs (for lawyers and expert witnesses). Most importantly at the present time, it provides the added benefit of being socially distanced.

With this expectation remote depositions will become more prevalent, even post-COVID-19, here are the suggestions from our contributors, to help you as a deponent, give your best presentation and performance.

Court Reporter Suggestions:

Isaiah Leslie and I have become friendly on Twitter, which for those who know me, is where I’ve made a significant number of professional relationships. Isaiah brought his partner and wife, Stephanie Leslie, into the conversation so we can get some outstanding suggestions direct from a court reporter who regularly participates in depositions.

As with other past blogs, I provided a variety of questions and Mrs. Leslie provided some outstanding responses (some edited for brevity and clarity).

Nick Rishwain: Have you experienced an increase in remote/virtual depositions during COVID-19?

Stephanie Leslie: We have certainly seen more remote depositions than usual, but unfortunately most law firms are still not jumping on board fully quite yet for a variety of reasons. One being their lack of comfort with the technology aspect of things. Once they try it, they typically schedule more after that. It’s just making the plunge.

NR: Based on your experience doing in-person video depositions and remote depositions, have you identified any best practices for deponent performance?

SL: The most crucial thing with remote depositions is abiding by the admonition to not talk over others. As a working reporter myself, I can attest to the fact that speakers talking over each other is always a nuisance and makes my job exponentially harder, but in remote depositions it is absolutely critical because remote platforms, such as Zoom, act similarly to a speakerphone, and it can only choose one voice to allow through the system, so if there is simultaneous speaking, I can usually hear no one. And then, to add insult to injury, if other speakers are talking, I cannot successfully interrupt and remind everyone to speak one at a time because no one can hear me either. I have found that even though it feels very tedious to go slowly and methodically, it actually makes the deposition go more quickly and smoothly.

NR: My customers are concerned with coming across as credible, knowledgeable, professional and authoritative in their field. What do you recommend for best remote deposition performance?

SL: I have taken several expert depositions recently, all remotely, and I don’t think the virtual aspect of the deposition makes much of a difference. I felt like it was any other expert deposition. It was very clear to me which experts were knowledgeable and confident about the subjects upon which they were opining, and others were obviously not as much. I think a great CV and clear opinions backed by evidence still come through clearly to all observers.

NR: Any suggestions on apparel, lighting, audio/video setup?

SL: I have seen some sharp solid-colored virtual backgrounds created with an expert firm’s logo placed in the top corner just to the side of the witness, and it is very professional looking and memorable while not detracting from the substance of the proceeding. Apparel — I suggest still making sure you’re completely professional on top. What’s on bottom is up to you! I use an inexpensive cube light to help illuminate my face, but if the room is well lit (not too much back light), I don’t think it’s particularly necessary. Audio is the most important thing. Please test your connection and audio quality beforehand!

NR: Any further suggestions I may not have asked?

SL: As usual (but even more important with remote), if you are able to provide any spellings or technical words to the stenographer before the deposition, that is always appreciated. We usually come into the case with little to no context on the facts and your background and role, so anything you can assist with along the way is invaluable!

Legal Videographer Suggestions:

Isaiah, continued to provide me with excellent access to his team and we got some outstanding feedback from Sean Malone, of Malone Video, who works primarily with Regal Court Reporting.

The same questions provided to Stephanie Leslie were also sent to Mr. Malone. His different experiences from a videographer perspective are equally beneficial to the expert witness.

Sean answered the questions in a slightly different format, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Nick Rishwain: Have you experienced an increase in remote/virtual depositions during COVID-19?

Sean Malone: Definitely. Though overall some attorneys are still hesitant to go remote, others have been willing to test, and even embrace remote depositions right now, due to the quarantine. As a legal videographer, before the quarantine I had done exactly zero remote depositions. Since the quarantine, I have done at least 2 to 3 per week, on various platforms, and all for clients that were mainly accustomed to in-person depositions before COVID-19.

For the following, questions 2-4, Sean answered the questions in aggregate.  So, you don’t have to scroll up to find those questions again, I’ve added them below:

NR: Based on your experience doing in-person video depositions and remote depositions, have you identified any best practices for deponent performance?

NR: My customers are concerned with coming across as credible, knowledgeable and an authority in their field. What do you recommend for best remote deposition performance?

NR: Any suggestions on apparel, lighting, audio/video setup?

SM: As a legal videographer, the things that matter in an in-person deposition are the same things that matter for a remote deposition. For example, is the deponent well lit? Are they centered in frame? Can they be clearly seen and heard? I’d recommend a similar approach for everyone involved in a remote deposition: identify your best in-person deposition practices and translate those to the medium of video conference.

Just like in real life, the witnesses I’ve observed that come off well are the witnesses who:

  • Are professionally dressed.
  • Are well mannered/aware that they are the focus of the deposition and the video record.
  • Listen to and directly answer attorney questions.

One note on that last one: Just like in real life, we all know that deponents should let the taking attorney finish their question before starting to answer, and also pause a little so that the opposing attorney can get in their objections… But this is especially important during a remote deposition, because of that notorious split-second delay present in all video conferencing platforms.

To present yourself well and make the videographer love you, you can:

  • Make sure you are well lit, and not heavily backlit.
  • Make sure whatever is in the background behind you is relatively neutral and not distracting (in other words, maybe take that Backstreet Boys poster down before logging on).
  • Make sure the area around you is tidy and free from clutter.
  • Make sure the camera built into your computer is as close to your eye-level as possible. If the camera is too low, like on your lap for instance, everyone will view you (and the video record will capture you) from an unflattering, upward angle. Eye-level or at least face-level is the best idea for a flattering shot of you.
  • Ideal framing is you in the center of the frame, with your torso and head visible in frame, with a little bit of headroom on top (headroom is the small space between the top of your head and the top of the frame). See picture:

sean-malone-legal-videographer-frame-example

  • Make sure you are joining the video conference from a reliable device that has a decent camera and microphone built in.
  • Make sure that device is charged!

Some additional tips on your Internet connection. So that your testimony can be captured optimally by both the court reporter, and the videographer, make sure your Internet connection is as strong as possible. Office internet is more robust than home internet, but if you are at home, you can try:

  • Connecting your device via Ethernet cable rather than WiFi.
  • If you cannot connect via Ethernet cable, choose the spot in your home with the strongest WiFi signal.
  • Ask other members of your household to refrain from moderate or heavy Internet use that day (e.g. have them avoid streaming TV, playing online games, etc.)

NR: Any further suggestions I may not have asked?

SM: I always like to say that everyone in a deposition has a job to do. Therefore, I try to help others do their jobs well, by doing my job well. I think that approach can be helpful no matter what your job is!

As we feel this is going to be a growing experience for witnesses and expert witnesses, we wanted to create a blog post that is truly helpful to your presentation and performance. So, we brought in one more voice to help you nail that remote deposition!

Live Video Marketing Professional Suggestions:

As some of my readers know, I’ve been doing live video since about 2015. However, I do it as a hobby. Our next contributor does it professionally and has written a book on the subject. I’m just lucky enough to know her and call her a friend. Jennifer Quinn, is a leading consultant on Internet live-streaming. I reached out to her and asked her for her input regarding presentation and performance.

Here are the suggestions provided direct from Jenny. In this instance, I asked questions more generally and Jenny gave me us some outstanding suggestions, all of which should be considered for remote depositions.

NR: I’m looking for suggested best practices. How would you want an expert witness to be prepared for remote deposition? What best practices do you suggest?

Jennifer Quinn: The fastest way to build trust with someone is to show up the way they expect you to show up. Traditionally, as an expert witness, you would arrive, dressed professionally, sit upright, and be fully prepared for the deposition.

The question most expert witnesses have today is how to transfer that same level of authority, and trust one would have face to face or in-person to a video format.

There are a few quick and easy ways to convey instant authority and credibility when preparing for a video deposition.

  1. Pay attention to your background – be sure it conveys professionalism.
  2. Dress the same way you would dress if you were attending court in person.
  3. Make virtual eye contact with the video viewers by looking directly into the lens of the camera. Yes, this will feel awkward; however, it is possibly the most crucial skill you can master if you want to instantly build trust in this new era of video. Looking directly into the lens of the camera simulates eye contact and conveys authenticity more powerfully than anything else you can do when recording video.

In my book, I reference the need to pay attention to L.A.V.S.: Lighting, Audio, Video, Stability.

Lighting:

  • Daylight – sit in front of the window with the light shining in on your face.
  • Ring light – clips on to your phone.
  • Box lighting – home office studio setup.
  • Turn off the overhead lighting in the room.

Audio:

  • Earbuds with built-in mic.
  • External microphone.
  • USB/Studio mic.

Video:

  • Cell phone camera.
  • Built-in webcam.
  • USB webcam.
  • Keep the lens camera at eye level.
  • Look into the lens.

Stability:

  • Prop phone up – at eye level (think books, boxes, etc.).
  • Tripod or mount.
  • Desktop/laptop – don’t bump desk or table.

There you have it. Four different individuals telling you how to up your remote deposition game as remote depositions have drastically increased in the last 90 days.

Throughout shelter-in-place, many lawyers and parties have experienced the benefits of remote depositions. It has proven both convenient and cost effective. We do not expect the trend in growth to wane any time soon. If anything, we could be witnessing a completely new shift in how the legal system communicates.