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The Hewlett-Packard leak scandal uncovered many unpleasant truths. Surely the most heinous of them is that millions of people appear to be using the word “pretext” as a verb — as in, “Did HP engage in pretexting to track down leakers?” We all know what a pretext is. It’s an excuse, a pretense, a sham. In short, it’s one of those things that make modern life possible. Pretexting, on the other hand, is a much more controversial affair: It’s the act of using a pretext to get confidential information about others. “Pretexting” is an ugly word, too. It barely even looks like a word. It’s a gerund (a word ending in “ing”), the root of which is the suspicious-looking verb “to pretext.” But it really is an actual word. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that “pretext” has been used as a verb since the late 18th century. “Pretexting” is recorded as early as 1849; originally, it meant pretending or feigning. And even in its current usage, pretexting describes behavior as old as private detectives. So why the fuss all of a sudden? IT’S CYBER-TASTIC! The answer is that pretexting is one of those legal terms that has acquired a new sense of urgency and cachet in the Information Age. Back in the old days, investigators would merely snoop through the trash in back alleys and dumpsters. But now they engage in “data mining” — in “cyberspace,” no less. The use and abuse of electronic information is the subject of “cyberlaw,” a term that covers laws relating to computers, software, databases, networks, and, especially, the Internet. The “cyber” part comes from “cybernetics” (from the Greek kybernetes, a steersman or pilot), which is the study of communication and control among animals and machines. “Cyber” has been a popular prefix in technical circles since 1982, when science-fiction writer William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace.” Some legal writers have proposed a formal system of international law to govern conduct on the Internet. They call it “cyberalty,” a combination of “cyber” and “admiralty” — the latter because cyberspace is analogous to the high seas in that it is used by people of all nations. But to many others, terms like “cyberlaw” and its derivatives are pass�, reminiscent of sci-fi chestnuts such as “cyborg” and “cybernaut.” A number of legal academics have suggested that “information law” is a better name for this branch of the law. Still others reject both approaches and advocate a revolutionary terminology that captures all the cutting-edge drama of the Internet. I refer to Latin. WHEN IN ROME? Yes, Latin. Some say the international legal principles covering electronic exchanges of information ought to be known as “lex informatica.” “Lex” is Latin for law, and “informatica” is Latin for — well, actually, it isn’t Latin at all, but rather a pseudo-Latin word meaning “of or pertaining to information.” The use of Latin does have one great advantage: Because it’s already a dead language, it can’t get any deader. Technology lingo, you see, grows obsolete rapidly, and so do the corresponding legal terms. In 1960, for example, a Time magazine writer argued that government lawyers needed to get serious about “jet age problems.” In 1963, a California lawyer described certain legal terms as belonging to the “atomic age.” Soon enough, “cyberlaw” will sound just as dated. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON In the meantime, various high-tech legal problems continue to enrich our vocabulary. For example, a common problem for e-commerce merchants is “click fraud,” which is the illicit manipulation of keyword-based advertising. A company might employ people to click on a rival company’s search-engine ads, thereby driving up the costs of that competitor’s advertising. But round-the-clock clicking is tedious work, so some click fraudsters now do their deeds via “botnets” — that is, robot networks. The very mention of robots conjures up images of walking, talking, C-3PO-like creatures. Already, computers can be programmed to compose poetry. Will they demand copyright protection for their works? And if a robot causes harm, can we hold it liable under a reasonable-computer standard? But that is a subject for an entirely different branch of law: Lex Robotica?
Adam Freedman is an in-house lawyer in New York. His book on legal language, The Party of the First Part , will be published by Henry Holt in September. A version of this article originally appeared in New York Law Journal Magazine , an ALM publication.

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