Georgia State Law assistant professor Jeffrey Vagle proves the legal field needs attorneys with science and technology backgrounds to better keep up with an increasingly technologically dependent society. The mathematician turned lawyer joined the faculty in February 2020. His scholarship focuses in the areas of privacy, cybersecurity law and policy, and the ethics of technology and innovation.
As he was beginning graduate study in mathematics, focusing on cryptography, Vagle attended a conference with a mix of technologists, policy makers and advocacy groups. He says that gave him the idea law school would be beneficial for his career.
“I found myself less drawn to the mathematics of cryptography, and more toward the policy of it,” Vagle said. “I thought the best way to pursue that interest was to get a J.D.”
After earning his law degree, Vagle practiced in the Privacy and Data Protection Practice Group of the Philadelphia offices of Pepper Hamilton LLP for several years before an opportunity presented itself for him to transition to an academic role at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
“It felt like the right fit,” Vagle said. “It aligned with my overall goal of examining the details of technology law, especially as they pertain to privacy, cybersecurity, and ethics.”
Vagle is currently working on a paper researching how software code differs from other technologies and how those differences can translate into treating software differently under the law. He is also writing on plain view doctrine under Fourth Amendment Law as applied to computer searches.
“What does plain view actually mean when we’re talking about searching hard drives or any sort of storage device?” Vagle questions. “It’s not quite the same thing as when we can pass by an open field and see that there’s something in the middle of that field. There are questions about whether or not a warrant for the search of a computer can just say ‘take it all’.”
The expanding field of law and technology covers many aspects of the law, and demonstrates why there is more need for lawyers with deeper understandings of technologies generally. Vagle says it’s critical to comprehend why the law operates a certain way and how that affects clients. If lawyers don’t have the wherewithal to grasp that, it’s doing a disservice to clients.
Vagle will be teaching information privacy law, cybersecurity law, and technology law and ethics. He welcomes the opportunity to instruct future lawyers about these topics and hopes he can draw students with science and engineering backgrounds who want to apply their knowledge to legal and policy issues.
“To understand why the laws may or may not work, you really need to understand the technology that they’re affecting,” Vagle said. “Without that, you’re just flying blind. We’ve seen good policy, but we’ve also seen rather bad policies that have come out of a limited understanding of how and why technology works.”
Written by Mara Thompson