25 November 2014

S4M-11664 Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-11664, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Mike MacKenzie is being grossly unfair to the committee. Only this morning, we had a piece of secondary legislation on food, and the table in the schedule to that instrument told me that corned beef must have 120 per cent meat in it. I will let members go and read for themselves the instrument, which will go to the policy committee shortly. The figure was correct, as it turned out. I would never have known that had I not been on the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee.

John Mason: How can it be 120 per cent?

Stewart Stevenson: No, no—this is not the place. John Mason needs to go and read the relevant instrument. I can tell him that the figure is on page 7 and the explanation is in small print—six-point print—on page 10, if he can understand it when he gets there. He should believe me that it is interesting.

The point is that we deal with the minutiae, and the minutiae on contracts often have profound effects for business and life in Scotland and beyond.

Over the years, I have dealt with a number of contracts. I quickly jotted down the jurisdictions in which I have signed contracts and found 10, ranging from Delaware to Norway. I have been in San Francisco only once in my life and that was simply to sign a contract. I was in the United States for a grand total of 14 hours and slept for 10 of them because that was overnight.

A friend of mine got up in the morning, got the plane down to Heathrow, got on Concorde, met somebody airside at Kennedy airport, signed a contract, got back on the same Concorde, flew back to Heathrow, got the plane back to Edinburgh and was home an hour earlier than usual, but what a waste of time and effort it was to go all that way to sign a contract. This modest little bill will have profound and useful effects.

Jenny Marra mentioned Estonia. I am surprised that she did not namecheck Skype, which was written by software engineers there. That country has considerable things to offer in the electronic world.

The bill will move us a little bit towards electronic signatures and electronic repositories. The Law Society is producing its electronic card, which will go out to everybody in about a year. It remains the case that the card will be shared among people in a firm, so there will not be individual certainty about who might have used it to sign something electronically. The bill takes the issue forward with its emphasis on electronic signatures but does not take it all the way.

Mike MacKenzie: Does Stewart Stevenson agree that the Scottish Government is due praise for implementing across the Highlands and Islands the backbone for a fibre optic broadband system that will allow such technological improvement to our law to take place? Does he also agree that the United Kingdom Government requires to do more work to roll out 2G, 3G and 4G across the Highlands and Islands and the rural parts of Scotland?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I can give Stewart Stevenson an extra minute or two to his seven minutes, to make up for the interventions.

Stewart Stevenson: That would be helpful, Presiding Officer, although I might need about an hour to deal with the scope of that intervention. I note that the Irish Government has this very day committed itself to delivering 30 megabit broadband to every location in Ireland, so perhaps we have a little bit to travel. I would welcome 2G, 3G, 4G or any G at home; I currently have none. It is very important.

I will return to the subject of the bill—I am sure that you would wish me to do that, Presiding Officer—and electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are useful in a variety of ways, as they enable people to sign a document and if anything in the document is changed—even if a dot or comma is missing or a single letter is changed—the signature becomes invalid. That kind of technological approach will give us certainty in the future.

Lawyers are quite reasonably conservative—with a small “c”—about adopting technology. It is very straightforward to describe public-key cryptography, with the appellation of Rivest, Shamir and Adleman—the three American mathematicians who developed the system that we generally use today. In fact, it was developed by Government Communications Headquarters some years earlier but kept secret. It is a system of cryptography that can be described on a single page, but it takes a lifetime of study to understand. It involves the multiplication of two very large prime numbers together and then a matrix formation, so that we can have one key for locking—for signing—and a different, secret key for unlocking. Keys do not have to be shared with anyone. That is the essence of a secure system.

The system is not new. Mary, Queen of Scots used the system; she had a little casket with which she corresponded with her lovers. After putting a message in, she used a key to lock the lock and then sent the casket to her lover. He locked another lock with his private key and sent the casket back to her. She then unlocked her lock and sent the casket back to him. He unlocked his lock and at last he could access the message. The key was never shared with anyone. That is exactly how electronic signatures work, except that instead of physical keys that the owners keep secret we use electronic keys.

As a mathematician, I find prime numbers particularly interesting. They come up time and again. Some of this technology has been described in “The Simpsons”. Most of the team that writes “The Simpsons” are mathematicians, which might surprise members. Eighteen years ago, Homer Simpson referred to Belphegor’s prime. Belphegor is one of the seven princes of hell in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and was charged with helping people to make ingenious inventions and discoveries. Belphegor’s prime number is 31 digits long: it is 1 followed by 13 zeroes, followed by 666—which is why it is Belphegor’s prime—followed by 13 zeroes, followed by 1. Of course, it is also symmetric: it is the same read either way around. Prime numbers are exciting and interesting, as well as being useful for electronic signatures.

There is an opportunity for Scotland beyond what we are doing today, such as encouraging Registers of Scotland to develop a secure repository based on such technology, with contracts held there during their development and people able to access them securely to sign, annotate or amend. That gives us security against the failure of companies, so that contracts do not get lost over the years to come; it gives us security of control and access, with everyone working off the same document; and it could give us significant commercial advantage.

Scots law has been around for a long time. It has stood the test of time. The Scottish Law Commission has usefully helped us to make progress and to bring us up to the mark of other jurisdictions. The debates and the discussions, as well as the information from witnesses that we have had in the committee, show us that we can do more. I hope that we take the opportunity to do that and that we pick up the challenge of secure signatures and encryption because, in mathematical terms—members can look this up—this is an NP, or non-deterministic polynomial time, problem. No one knows how to solve it, no one has yet broken such a key and no one shows any sign of doing so.


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