Slightly less Random Ramblings

March 18, 2016

The Process or the Product?

Filed under: crime, encryption, Police, Technology, terrorism — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Wicks @ 5:29 pm

Cipher for Telegraphic Correspondence — a code book used by Union General Joseph Hooker’s code clerk

When I was younger, I often heard people debating whether the state should attempt to ensure equality of opportunity for people or equality of outcome. This has generally focused on areas associated with race or gender. Libertarians have consistently maintained that equality of opportunity is all that the government should properly enforce. The most progressive people push for equality of outcome in some situations, though many will say that historical biases are being overcome, so it is meaningful equality of opportunity that they seek. It strikes me however, that the recent public confrontation between Apple and the FBI provides us with similar arguments being made.

The state has long had the recognized authority to seize property and search it with a warrant. Many of the discussions surrounding the iPhone in question mention that the government can issue orders to look through private property and that the iPhone in question is no different. I’ve seen comparisons, for example to breaking into a home and taking papers for examination.

This is where I think the parallels to civil rights situations can come into play. If the police take your papers, do they have the right to the intelligibility of those papers and effects, or simply to the effects themselves. That is, if the papers are in some language or code that they do not know, do they have the right to force someone to translate it or to teach them the language? In the cases of both plain English papers and the iPhone, they have the same opportunity to examine, but the lack of knowledge (of the pass code, password, or encryption key) may make the outcomes very different.

Another analogy I have seen is that of a safe. Imagine a safe with a completely impregnable lock. What does the state do? Well, there are ways to get into safes without using the lock. You could cut your way in, or blow it up. However, it is at least possible that these other methods may destroy something of value within the safe. Does the government have the right to force the  to come up with a method for opening the lock? Further, do they have the right to force  to only make locks which can be opened without the owner’s consent? In the case of the confiscated iPhone, there may well be ways to “open” the data without the owner’s consent, but those methods may destroy the information which is sought.

It is entirely possible that this case may have effects which reach outside of the world of technology. The most fundamental of notions being examined are whether the state is entitled to a process or a product? The process is the issuing of warrants and the collection of property. The seizure of property is no guarantee of specific uses of that property. And it is the specific uses that the state demands. Is it appropriate for the state to insist on a specific outcome for a policy or is it appropriate that an agreed upon process be followed? In the justice system, I have heard many times over the years that the purpose is to follow the process. Justice is the ideal outcome, but a particular outcome is not what the state promises citizens. It promises them a process. Yet, it appears as though the state is not satisfied to have the same situation in cases involving itself: it demands an outcome. As we move forward and various technologies are developed, this guarantee of outcome will necessarily create greater and greater burdens on hardware and software developers. It may be effectively illegal for a small independent developer to create an encrypted product, for example, because the day may come where each instance of a product will require some sort of individualized method for accessing whatever data is held within it. That implies a substantial data handling infrastructure which companies, and individuals, may soon be required to maintain.


January 27, 2015

Autonomous Cars: Don’t Hold Your Breath

Filed under: cars, computing, economics, libertarianism, Police, statism — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Wicks @ 11:51 am

Driverless vehicles are all the rage all over the Internet. In October, Tesla announced an autopilot feature which, in addition to providing some useful driver assistance features, will also allow the car to park itself when on private property. Mercedes has had similar driver assistance features for some time. Of course, Google is famous for experimenting with fully autonomous cars for years and have been improving the technology steadily. I have every confidence in the engineering. The capability to make a reliable autonomous vehicle is nearly upon us and is a very reachable goal. However, that is not the determining factor in them becoming commonplace on the roads.

The proponents for autonomous cars largely come from the technologically sophisticated left. There are some significant potential efficiency and safety gains to be had from self-driving vehicles. The driver is the most unreliable part of a car. Driver behavior has a large impact on energy usage as well. Up to this point, there has not been much in the way of vocal opposition to driverless cars. There are concerns, yes. Perhaps they will make traffic worse. There are potential ethical dilemmas. But these are not serious impediments to adoption. The serious impediment to the adoption of autonomous cars is the state.

Some of the things being touted as benefits of autonomous cars are threats to some parties. Let’s look at safety. Assume an autonomous car obeys all traffic laws. What does that do to various governments who depend on ticketing revenue? Driving irregularities are a leading reason for traffic stops which allow for the detection of drug trafficking, which is another major source of revenue for local police departments. Will police departments and municipalities be onboard for technology which will potentially eliminate the majority of their revenues? I think not.

Assuming the limited testing of computer controlled cars is promising, what are likely reactions from governments? If a driverless car is really safer and more efficient, how long before anything else is banned? Look at technologies such as airbags and backup cameras. These things went from high-end features to mandatory ones within 3 car generations. How long before something which could save considerably more lives would be similarly mandated? And that would spark outrage among both car enthusiasts and the automakers who cater to those enthusiasts. Those are moneyed interests whose influence should not be underestimated.

I do not expect these reasons to be the explicit cases for banning or at least slowing the adoption of autonomous vehicles. They are too cynical to be digested by the public. There will be other reasons given. I’m sure many factions are chomping at the bit for the first fatality which is caused or at least exacerbated by some sort of failure or design flaw in an autonomous car. When that happens, it will be put to maximum use by political interests who have had to largely remain silent due to their somewhat unsavory motivations. I expect us to have autonomous vehicles. But not without a fight, and not when the technology is ready. Perhaps a generation after the technology is readily available, the political climate will have sufficiently changed to allow them to become commonplace, but I don’t expect them to be common on American roads for at least 20 years after we have fully operational, reliable, cost-effective prototypes. The state will probably not allow it to happen any sooner than that.


January 5, 2010

Malaysian Oppression of Muslims

Filed under: Islam, Police — Robert Wicks @ 11:02 am


Fifty-two unmarried couples could face charges of sexual misconduct and jail terms after being caught in hotel rooms by Malaysia’s Islamic morality police.

The article goes on to say:

Under Malaysia’s Islamic Sharia Law, couples who are not married to each other should not be in a secluded area or confined space, which could give rise to suspicion that they were engaged in immoral acts.

This is an example of what many in the West would call “the” Sharia. The “the” is problematic. Many Muslims voluntarily submit to rulings by Islamic scholars. However, there have been many scholars of Islamic thought and many schools of thought throughout history. To condense 1400 years of scholarship among billions of people into “the” Sharia is a fool’s errand. There is no “the.” There are various interpretations of Islamic law and competing courts are the best way to insure a just outcome. Monopoly justice always carries an element of injustice. Sometimes the injustices are so large that it is difficult to find the justice in the ruling at all. Even in this case, for example, the prohibition against entering the home of another without first being invited appears to have been ignored.

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