Farset Labs’ Legal Encounter

November 14, 2012 in News by Ellen Murray

UPDATEDThe original letters sent to Farset Labs have been linked to throughout the article for context and transparency. Further questions will be answered via email at admin@farsetlabs.org.uk

Farset Labs has gone from strength to strength since opening its doors in April of this year, and the community has grown and matured quickly, but our summer progress was slower than was hoped for. Our entire model and ethos is built on transparency and democracy, so we publish this document to explain to our membership and supporters the difficulties placed in our path due to litigation launched by Latens/Pace plc.

Out of the blue, on the 14th June, multiple copies of a letter were hand delivered to Farset Labs by Pinsent Masons, legal representatives of Latens/Pace, as well as emailed to several different accounts of the Directors whether they were Farset Labs related or personal, work and university inboxes. One of our members had been accused on their last day of work of stealing sensitive Confidential Information from their employer and transmitting it to Farset Labs. The letter explained that we had possession of their property, and that it it was on our equipment. It demanded that we exclude an allegedly-involved member from the premises and cut all communication with him pending completion of their investigations. Two of the Directors have known the member for almost a decade, having gone to the same school, and so for a demand to come through to sever all contact was seen to be unreasonable.

However, the demands of the letter were not finished, but became unfeasible. We were required to provide ‘confirmation by return’ that third party computer specialists hired by Latens/Pace would be allowed unfettered access to the premises and all equipment to forensically image the equipment and ‘assess any other use of such equipment in relation to the Confidential Information’.

The final demand was for us to undertake that, by 4pm the next day, any Confidential Information in our control would not be used or shared, but returned to Latens or destroyed at their option. We were happy to comply with this one, since we were safe in the knowledge that we didn’t have any of these supposed trade secrets. The letter then finished by informing the Directors of their possibly criminal liability in failing to return the stolen information and in handling stolen goods.. This was a difficulty, given that we had no stolen information to return. However, curiously for a supposed crime of this magnitude, Latens had elected not to involve the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Our reply addressed all the points, but we paid particular attention to the third demand (forensically imaging all equipment), pointing out that, if we assisted Latens in imaging members’ personal laptops and other devices on the premises, we really would be handling stolen goods this time around, as well as committing several acts under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. We were very firm in disagreeing with Latens/Pace on this point. We also elected to continue our usual contact with the member, given that we had seen no evidence so far of any theft of information.

Next, the Directors had letters delivered to their places of work reminding us of our ‘liability as an officer of the company for offences by the company under the Fraud Act 2006’ and to be ‘aware that there are sanctions in place under the Theft Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 with regard to the making of false statements with intent to deceive by company directors’. Not only is it, in our opinion, a defamation of character to be served by a legal aide in front of colleagues, we feel that this action was bordering on harassment and caused distress to us, given we were being threatened with the possibility of criminal prosecution in relation to an event that we had been first made aware of when a flurry of identical emails had landed in every inbox we had, whether or not the inbox was related to Farset Labs.

We felt we had no option but to seek legal advice and responded via our solicitors from this point onwards.

Pinsent Masons then sent through a long list of undertakings required by them. All through this, immense pressure was put on the Directors to sign various documents within hours, with no real time to consult counsel or other authorities. We did not bow to these pressures, but it began to affect our running of Farset Labs and our everyday work and academic activities. Among these undertakings, key points included: provision of the network architecture within Farset and storage of electronic information; security arrangements within Farset Labs; and a provision of a log of the time, size and description of any electronic information flow from Latens to Farset. We then spent valuable time and effort trying to make Pinsent Masons understand that our front-end router does not log that information, so it was simply impossible for us to provide it, but the replies generally just quoted the same demands again and again. Several emails went back and forth, eating up time and money, before we finally got a version of the undertakings provided to us that would be possible for us to sign. We signed this and returned it, hoping that it would bring the situation to a conclusion.

Sadly, if anything, it got even more disjointed and difficult. Despite our repeated offers of a face-to-face meeting with Latens to help try and resolve the situation, the responses from Pinsent Masons ignored these, never mentioning them. The demands became more warped, sometimes making little sense. One of our personal favourites was:

Answer 1.3(a) – Please confirm if the metal project boxes are lockable whilst also on the network when in the boxes.

We assure you that this has not been taken out of context in any way. None of the Directors of Farset nor our legal team could make sense of this and, at this stage, with the blessing of our solicitor, we informed Pinsent Masons that we would not be communicating further, as the requests had become repetitive, spurious and, we suspected, simply an attempt to harass us. We were also advised that, had Latens truly thought a breach had taken place, they would have collected evidence and brought all parties involved to court long before now or, at the very least, involved the PSNI.

We then learned that the Latens personnel handling the Pinsent Masons team had gone on holiday towards the end of this, such was the severity, urgency and threat of this terrible crisis. This also explained why the technical acumen in the responses to our explanations was lacking. The net result of this experience was that we had lost time and sleep over a non-issue, mainly due to the extremely poor handling of the matter by Latens/Pace and their lawyers at Pinsent Masons. We have also been left with a gaping four-figure hole in our already-limited budget from legal expenses, which has threatened the very existence of Farset Labs.

After several months of silence from Pinsent Masons, we sent a letter via recorded delivery to the CEO of Pace detailing these events and the insanity of the entire episode, inviting comment and possibly aid, but have had no response, despite a follow-up phone call and ample time.
In conclusion, the company and its Directors have been dragged through hell for no reason in a case that Latens/Pace now appear to have lost interest in, despite their initial misdirected fury. Farset Labs has been dealt a severe and nearly fatal financial blow, stunting its growth and preventing new equipment and services being offered to our members. In short, Latens/Pace have struck out needlessly at the voluntary technical community in Belfast and have sadly, though given the chance, made no effort to repair the consequences of, or even explain, their actions.

 

Anyone wishing to get further explanation of events, or to get in touch with the Directors of Farset Labs about this matter or otherwise should contact admin@farsetlabs.org.uk.

10 thoughts on “Farset Labs’ Legal Encounter

  1. Ed Benton says:

    Suddenly think much, much less of latens. Not a good way to endear yourself to the local linux / business community!

  2. Matt says:

    That is a horrible thing to do, this deserves a higher profile.

  3. John says:

    Clearly Latens/Pace have done this before, and have some kind of formulaic process they go through – the legal response is typical hyperbole: WE WILL DESTROY YOU UNLESS YOU RESPOND FIVE MINUTES BEFORE WE SENT THIS EMAIL.

    Good for you standing up to them. That was probable enough to derail their automated processes, and make them decide it wasn’t worth their while.

    I’m not a lawyer, nor do I watch any on TV, but I hope you can sue them for harassment and take a claim for expenses against them for such a spurious case.

  4. Anthony says:

    This reads like Attrition.org’s Wrath of The Impotent.

    That any technology firm thinks it can make utterly unrealistic, unfeasible, unimplemental quite possibly illegal demands via solicitors… is it the 1990s? Did I travel back in time?

  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, wouldn’t the former Pace/Latens employee have a good chance suing them for slander?

  6. Conor says:

    I wonder what the response will be like to their stand in the BCB today…

  7. John Lawson says:

    This sounds like an impossible legal problem (how exactly do you prove that no-one has *seen* the code, for instance?!) has been thoroughly botched. My sympathies are with the member involved and the whole Farset Labs team and I hope that this can be resolved quickly and painlessly (from now on)

  8. benbland says:

    Glad to see this is getting airtime finally, although saddened that it ever got this far. Such a weird thing to treat other humans the way so many do, I don’t get it.

  9. Mervyn says:

    Long runs the fox……..

  10. El says:

    Has anyone mentioned this to Groklaw, Software Freedom Law Center, etc.?

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