Saturday, June 4, 2016

In The End, Our Stupidity Will Save Us

At some point, we got really stupid.  We stopped remembering what jerks we can be to each other, and started trusting one another.  That's when we were saved.

Stupid is not good. Stupid is as Stupid does.  We only had to be stupid in one particular way.  We could be geniuses in other ways.  In that funny sense, our stupidity saved us.

"Actually, it was your mutual trust that saved you," you say.  That is true, too.  Mutual trust turned out not to be so stupid, after all.  Once people started trusting one another deeply, they started developing incredibly creative ideas together.  Those ideas solved all sorts of social problems, and made peace where before there had been war.

All that sounds idealistic.  That's how it is intended to sound.  We can also be practical.  When we get practical, we do politics.  And when we do politics, we compromise.

Even when we compromise, we can still vote our consciences.  How is this possible?  By a system of voting that does not deprive us of our voices when we choose the candidate that most closely represents our views, and allows us to switch our vote between rounds.  We are always telling other people to vote their conscience.  We should do what we say.

I am an extreme left libertarian, so I voted for Vermin Supreme on the first ballot, because he was obviously the most extreme left libertarian in the bunch who were running.  It is amazing that there were not more left libertarians among the delegates who saw it that way.  Vestigial fear must have been at work.  It's OK, you can vote the way you want, without being penalized (he says reassuringly).  This is the Libertarian Party!

I might have held to my first ballot, but with only one vote, it didn't really look like Vermin had the momentum to win.  With 49%, Johnson was looking pretty unstoppable already.  So I considered switching.  Not to Johnson, because he seemed too conventional.  Petersen is too right wing for my taste, although I am overjoyed at all the young Ron Paul types he brought in.  Austin and his followers will be a pillar of our Party for many years to come; maybe already are.  Feldman didn't have enough momentum, even though he did have the best rap.  That left Perry and McAfee.  I seem to have a preference for scary (as my sole vote for Vermin attests), so I voted for McAfee.  Although I admit it was a close call.

Johnson got 55% on the next round, and voting ended more suddenly than many would have liked.  Having voted my conscience twice, I compromised.  I accepted the majority selection as the Party's nominee, even though I hadn't voted for it.  So did everyone else, while reserving their rights to protest about the selection, at least until all the complaining becomes too wearisome to bear.

Johnson and Weld have since been given substantial interviews on MSNBC, CBS, and elsewhere.  Gary has never sounded more articulate.  Even while speaking next to the highly articulate, intellectual Bill Weld.  Gary's courage in selecting so presidential-sounding of a running mate speaks volumes about his humility.  If somebody has to sit in the White House, let it be a humble person.  Listening to the two of them go on, interviewed on those liberal channels, the fog cleared to reveal the political landscape.  In retrospect, the Johnson-Weld ticket was the second most left-libertarian proposition that hit the ballots at Convention. So maybe I should have voted for those guys instead, after I deserted Vermin.

Lefties are always getting into trouble for being willing to tax and spend for social issues, and that pretty much describes those two.  To explain a prevalent left viewpoint: the aggression of an imposed monopoly centrally-controlled economic system that enriches a privileged economic class justifies the reciprocal aggression of redistribution by taxation.  We all know it doesn't always work that way in practice; it's just theory.  We would like very much to get rid of the aggressions on both sides, without abandoning the needy.  In two words: we care.

I owe Tobias Knight gratitude for uttering those two words, "we care," when asked the question, "what should the unifying statement of the left-libertarian caucus be?"  I had been thinking we should try to explain something about those darned property rights that people are always divided over.  What a fool I was.  Property rights are important, even though we lefties are always trying to find ways to make them less important, while making a good reputation more important, in terms of social status.  Property helps us discover what is valued and in demand - the scarce resource - and allocate that resource to those who can do the most good with it.  That's the theory, anyway.  We all know it doesn't always work that way in practice.  So why pick a divisive subject for an unifying statement?  "We care" pretty much says it all.

We care when students take on lifelong unforgivable debt, to obtain an education that does not give them the means to pay back the debt comfortably.  We care when health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies get richer and more powerful, as the quality of our health care declines, and its costs go up.   We care when government policies leave people helpless and dependent, unable to take care of themselves or their families.  We care when the least fortunate among us go hungry, without shelter, without supportive society.  We care when isolated teens kill themselves, and when war-traumatized veterans do, too.  We care when the differently-gendered are not permitted to be themselves with dignity and acceptance by others.  We care when ex-convicts of victimless crimes struggle to rebuild their lives after serving time for nothing.  We care when our nation's alliances and commitments abroad cause bombs and bullets to burn civilians, to pierce soldiers, and starve children.  We care when the environment, the gene pool of life, human freedom, and all other good we have been given, are not preserved for future generations. We care enough to make sure that the things we care about get taken care of effectively, and with the least possible amount of prior aggression.  Eventually, with none at all.

We won't let our caring cause us to impose our will on others who choose to live in peace while pursuing a different kind of happiness.  Justice matters, and cannot be done when we place those who we care for in chains.  The law must allow all people to be truly equal before it regardless of the quality of the lawyer they can afford, and to preserve life before property.  Might does not make right, and the ends do not justify the means.  

2016 will be a good year for the left-libertarian caucus of the Libertarian Party.  We are left libertarians, and We Care.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Libertarian Guide To Chair Throwing

Earlier this year, delegates supporting Bernie Sanders grew disgusted at proceedings unfolding at the Nevada Democratic caucus.  Those unhappy delegates began throwing chairs and making death threats, or so it has been reported.

Just yesterday at the Libertarian Party's National Convention in Orlando Florida, a large and vocal minority of delegates were similarly dismayed by the nomination of William Weld for Vice President.  Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts, joined the Libertarian Party only two weeks ago.  These delegates did not trust Gov. Weld, and believed there were superior choices for the nomination.    Hundreds of delegates jeered loudly and waved their signs, once the results were announced.  I spotted an inverted chair parading over the heads of the delegates, accompanied by a long black inverted boot floating over a bush of kinky gray hair.  It turned out that Vermin Supreme was registering his displeasure by assertively carrying the chair around the floor.  This was learned from Vermin later, the reason for the floating chair being mysterious to me at the time.

James Weeks, delegate from Michigan and candidate for Chair of the Libertarian Party, registered his displeasure differently.  Granted a few minutes at the podium for his campaign speech, Mr. Weeks used his time to strip down to a jockstrap and shake his bearded Homer Simpson abundance at the assembled delegates and national television audience for what seemed like half of eternity.  He then withdrew from the race for Chair, and was escorted out of the convention hall by hotel security.

The purpose of Mr. Weeks' demonstration was not immediately apparent.  In hindsight, it can be inferred with confidence that it was meant as political protest.

I interviewed Mr. Weeks later that evening, and he confirmed that his striptease act was meant to protest the nomination of William Weld, which so richly deserved the contempt of the Party's radical wing.  Not only that -- and this I only half believe -- Mr. Weeks revealed that he sometimes strips professionally.  This seems incredible to me, but does explain his polished approach and use of professional tools.  I cannot imagine who would pay for services of such nature, but perhaps you can.

Why anyone would choose to protest a nomination by performing a striptease was beyond me.  The targeted effectiveness of Weeks' scud missile of gyrating, heavily bearded flesh became apparent later in the evening, after I heard an offended delegate complaining loudly and angrily that video of the performance was at the top of all the search results for "Libertarian Party Convention."   It was sort of an "aha"moment for me.

Weeks messed up the media coverage!  Righteous anger arises from desire to protect territory against trespass; in this case, the territory trespassed was a hope that the appearance of the convention would be sterile and complimentary.  No such territory exists that can be defended.  And yet, the Politician Weeks somehow managed to violate it, without breaking any of the Convention rules.  He was perfectly justified in exercising his political expression, exactly what the convention was held to do.  So he would receive no punishment.  He was asked to leave the convention hall, to prevent raucous infighting from getting out of hand.  There was a lot of stunned anger among the delegates, at the time.

It may be rumored that Weeks is a plant of the Trump campaign, sent to discredit the Libertarian Party and its nominee, Gary Johnson. This rumor is ridiculous.  From my interview of Weeks, I believe he is an honest, gentle man who has neither the desire nor the need to work for Trump or any other Machiavellian employer.  There is little more that can or need be said on the subject.

Some hope for the day that the Libertarian Party will grow up and become a serious broker of political power.  Not I.  The day that the Libertarian Party operates with great decorum and solemnity is the day I leave the Party.  May it ever be free, unpredictable, fun, and slightly ridiculous.  Only then will I trust that it is capable of performing that greatest political project ever attempted: ending all justifications for the application of coercion and fraud to achieve any social or political purpose.

Without further ado, we arrive finally at the Libertarian Guide to Chair Throwing: . . . don't, unless no one will be hurt by it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Southern Vice Chair's Report 2016

Dear Friends and Guests:

Thank you all for coming to our little convention in Los Angeles. Many from very far away. From all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It’s been a long trip for some of you. So on behalf of us locals: thanks for coming.

It’s a pretty strange election year, huh? It’s beginning to feel normal for Republicans to parade ten people around through countless debates, with each of the ten vowing to bomb and torture more brown people than the rest. I guess it’s also normal for a strange and unappealing nominee to emerge from that circus. But it’s even stranger when the winner of that process turns out to be someone appearing to be a Democratic mole, who takes the party by storm quoting Mussolini! (Very strange.) Let me tell you another thing that’s strange: A dark horse Democratic Party candidate who appears pretty good on a lot of liberty issues winning against an old money progressive; and doing it in big states.

It is the world turned upside down.  I wouldn’t vote for either of those guys and I am certainly not trying to endorse them, but one thing is clear: The American people are on the verge of a total political realignment. 2016 is the best chance we’ve had in a long time, maybe the first chance ever, for us cap ‘L’’ Libertarians to play a meaningful hand in the duopolistic ritual that is the U.S. Presidential Election. A lot of people are going to be disgusted with the usual choices this year.
Meanwhile - have you been seeing and hearing our Libertarian presidential contenders this year? Did you see the Stossel debate last night? Are you feeling better about the LP than you have in a long, long time? I sure am. I mean, I am feeling really good about 2016. LP, get ready! Get ready to get noticed and get ready to get grown! And I mean now!

With that, I have some great things to report:

2015 was a good year for Libertarians in Southern California. We had our share of high points: We have activated a new affiliate in Kern County, led by Jonathan Hall. Thank you Jonathan.
We also have had a revitalization of our Riverside County affiliate by Jeff Hewitt bringing in a lot of fresh blood. Great job Jeff, we are lucky to have you on the team. Gene Berkman a stalwart for our cause in Riverside for many years is still energetically involved, and will continue to be instrumental there. 
Our region has produced not one, but two Libertarians running for senate: Gail Lightfoot in San Luis Obispo County, and Mark Herd, an activist newly recruited by our Los Angeles County affiliate, who is doing just a tremendous amount of work and shaking up West LA.

LPOC has been revitalized by Brian Kelly and his team. It’s great to see some organization and energy in the OC again.
And San Bernardino County never let hard times get them down. They just keep going, man. A lot of champions for freedom out there.

We did have a sad set back: We lost a strong asset and a great ally with the passing of Mike Benoit, Chair of San Diego County. He left us suddenly, and too early.

San Diego is carrying on. Our Southernmost county elected a new slate of officers at its convention early this year. It remains one of the largest and most active affiliates in California and is strong despite its recent tragedy.

Speaking of moving forward, have you seen Ventura County’s website? Really beautiful and compelling. Classic yet fresh. They are setting a great example for how to put a strong face on our organization.

For a really new approach, ya gotta check out LA County’s website at A team of young Libertarian volunteers designed it, they built it, and they are fine-tuning it to appeal to our future members, people like them. LA has a lot of potential Libertarians who are focused on social justice issues normally owned by the so-called “left.” Our guys are daring to reach out for new members from those who thought the LP had failed them. And you know what? I’m already starting to see evidence that the strategy is working.

To bolster the move, the team is calling for articles that demonstrate Libertarian solutions for tough subjects like “social justice”, “the environment” and “mutual aid” to help people in LA, who sadly have been indoctrinated to only consider progressive-authoritarian solutions, to escape their prisons of thought. 

This is a new direction for outreach, folks; an ambitious jujitsu move. It will be interesting to track our success. There is information on this effort in the hospitality suite upstairs. Check it out! In hand-to-hand combat, libertarian jujitsu - the art of redirecting your opponent's energy towards your own self-defense - provides a tremendous advantage. We are going to learn a lot from the exercise, win some new members, and make some new allies.

LA County is beginning to thrive with six active regions. We are working hard to activate more. In addition we are strengthened by a number of Libertarian clubs and associations. Alive Free Happy, which is active in a number of California Counties, is especially strong in Los Angeles and has brought in a healthy number of new and young Libertarians. The new Venice Beach Libertarian Club is making quite a splash engaging local governments on the West side of the city.
We are also joined by the Society of Libertarian Entrepreneurs, Liberty on the Rocks, the Reason Foundation,, YAL, SFL, Libertarian Law Council, Restore the 4th, Oathkeepers (to name just a few) who we will count as allies and with whose members we will engage in activism. And we cannot forget the Nevada LP, Brett Pojunis and Nancy Neale of Texas, who have been so generous with their time and talents to make this event and others a success.

We will build coalitions and foster cooperation with our allies.

Alive Free Happy. Have you heard of them? They’re the folks in the black T-shirts that read “Alive Free Happy.” Homegrown right here in Southern California. They put boots on the ground, man. And they train. And they work really hard. And they create opportunities for young people (and not-so-young). And they recruit. And they have fun doing it. If you’d like to know more, talk to some of the young people with us today (the ones in those shirts) and learn about what they do. It is a model worth understanding.

I am so proud to say not only about Alive Free Happy but also a lot of others here today: they approach politics as an exercise in welcoming. Every sincere and willing person is welcomed to participate in the fun. And by that participation our future learns the principles of liberty, starting with non-aggression. They show people how to engage the world actively with our principles, never getting discouraged because they count every success as a win.

So I want to finish on that note: Success through Non-aggression. Each of us has certified that we oppose the initiation of force as a means of achieving political and social goals. The art of non-aggression in politics and society can be practiced in a much thicker way. We have members who do that, they practice the art of what I like to call “Anti-Machiavellian Politics”.

What I mean by Anti-Machiavellian politics is this: gaining political influence without using aggressive tactics. Yes - renouncing physical force, the threat of force, and fraud, for sure. But also renouncing the use of fear as a political tool.

Let’s face it, fear is one of the very most effective ways to manipulate people, and often goes hand in hand with lies. Politicians use fear and deceit all the time. So do sales people, and lawyers, and on and on. We are barraged with messages of fear everyday.

It’s surely a challenge to reject fear as a political tool. Compared to the “bad guys” it is a bit like trying to tackle Mammoth Mountain on only one ski and with no poles.

But as snowboarders know, tearing down a slope on one board is completely doable. Maybe even more freeing and exciting that way.

We have to do politics differently than the other guys. We have to tackle the mountain on a differently shaped board but in doing so we are more agile, we are faster, we fly higher, and we have a lot more fun.

When we renounce leveraging fear and work to build a society of self actualized friends in Liberty, amazing things start to happen. People deeply need to belong to a strong and free community. They need to see self-governed societies in action, so that they can let go of the false sanctuaries promised by the Nanny State.
When we provide that at the local level; when we insist on creating a free and welcoming community for ourselves: momentum grows, and the ingenuity of free and fearless people emerges to resolve social issues without force. As Libertarians we promote a healthy and happy society of equals, with mutual aid a-plenty, and we do it without threats or lies. When we do that, we are doing the best kind of politics: the politics of non-aggression. And it works!
All of the wins we have had here in the South, the activity that is growing across the state, and the national presence we are mounting (I mean look at the slate of presidential contenders we have this cycle) gives me great hope. We are spreading the principles of non-aggression.

And who can criticize our goals? We want a society that just works better, with greater liberty and justice for all, where social problems are solved by free speech, free action, and free people, in which the whole participates voluntarily. So let us be bold. Let us insist on our goals! And you know what? Just by trying, we are already winning. And our message of Liberty - it will prevail!

In closing, I have been privileged to witness great wins in the last year, I am humbled by the wins I see going on right now in all of the amazing people in this room, and I am excited for the future. Our movement is growing, it is thriving, with truth and justice firmly on our side... with hard work and determination in our hearts... we are destined to WIN.

...And we are going to have a great time doing it!

* * *
Thanks to Frank Chau for assistance with images, 
and Matt Barnes for editorial insights. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Promises and Proposals Regarding The Requested Revision to The Bylaws

Yesterday evening the Executive Committee (Ex Com) of the LPC, asked the Bylaws Committee (BC) to prepare a revision of the Bylaws for consideration by the Central Committee (a.k.a. dues-paying members) at the next convention.  The Ex Com further asked the BC to conduct the development of draft revisions openly and to allow for participation by any interested members.

Just so it is clear to everybody, "revision" means a total rewriting of the Bylaws.

I would like to write a fuller report of my impressions from the 2016 LPC convention when I have a chance.  Tonight, I will just express my promises, thoughts and hopes regarding the responsibility handed to us, including how we might respond to the Ex Com request.

Besides myself, the other four  Bylaws Committee members elected are Kevin Duewel, Bill Lopez, Starchild, and Aaron Starr.  I requested the role of BC Chair and no objection was made.  I will continue as Chair for no longer than the BC allows me to.  To those who were nominated but not elected: I wish the limit of 5 members in the present Bylaws had not operated to exclude you from voting on proposed drafts.    

To all my fellow members, elected to a committee or not, who wish to follow or participate in the work of the BC: I promise to include you to the fullest extent possible that does not unfairly impede our work.  I sincerely want your thoughtful and civil input, even if it is to oppose the revision generally or any of its particulars.  I promise to consider and respond to any reasonable comments or suggestions.

Transparency requires a full disclosure of motive.  Every member of the BC and any member who would like to participate in drafting of the revision (or in stopping preparation of any draft revision) should do at least this one thing: to announce their intentions honestly, as they become aware of them.  We cannot deal with each other dishonestly and expect any mutual benefit from our association and efforts.  The degree to which trust and mutual respect is magnified by our process of cooperation in responding to the Ex Com's request is far more important than any Bylaw Report we can ever hope to present to the Central Committee (CC).  "How you play is what you win" (Ursula K. Le Guin).

So I will lead by fully disclosing my motives and intentions:  I love the hope of an active, expanding voluntary association of people inventing, demonstrating, proving and sowing countless seeds of liberty and non-aggression until the idea that force or fraud can be used for any social purpose is widely understood to be as antiquated and as repulsive as medieval torture devices.  I will do what I can to make the LPC the center of activism for that hope in California.  I will preserve in any revision the presently stated purpose of the LPC, which is:

"The Party exists to uphold, promote, and disseminate the philosophy and principles of
libertarianism. To that end, it shall proclaim and implement the Statement of Principles of the
national Libertarian Party by engaging in political and informational activities in California."

I will not vote to approve any revision that omits a requirement for the non-aggression pledge for CC (voting) membership.

My specific intention for participation in the 2016 BC is to discover whether or not it is politically possible to propose a revision of the Bylaws that will be accepted by the Central Committee.  It is my hope that the Central Committee carefully considers our Bylaw Report and that no member votes to adopt it who does not sincerely believe that the improvements provided by the revision outweigh any risks that its unforeseen consequences might weaken us.  The adoption or rejection of a Bylaw Report by the Central Committee is not my goal.  My goal is to work diligently to improve trust and competence among ourselves by responding to the revision request to the best of my ability, while treating every other member interested in the process with fairness, civility and respect.

I propose the following schedule and general process:

April 4-May 1:  Members and participants obtain and study Robert's Rules of Order 11 ed., LPC's Bylaws, alternative model bylaws or other pertinent sources of information.  Action items:  report progress to one another and share any relevant model bylaws or sources.  During this time, we will not share drafts or proposals regarding revision language or structure, other than stating our own non-negotiable positions as I have done above.  The BC agrees to a calendar and process for drafting the revision.

May 1-Sept 3: Circulation of initial proposals and drafts, using a collaborative authoring platform (CAB) such as Google Docs.  I propose the following guidelines and objectives for circulating drafts and proposals, during this period:

1. Any proposal or draft written or submitted by any member of the BC is circulated to and revised by members of the BC via the CAB until at least three members have indicated agreement to it.  Proposals or drafts may be organized as the authors desire and may be submitted by any CC member with the cooperation of any BC member.  Any BC member who submits a proposal or draft is responsible for obtaining agreement of at least three other members of the BC to it, as submitted or revised.

2. Once at least three BC members have indicated agreement to a proposal or draft, a copy of it will be released (within 24 hours or so) for comment by any CC member who has indicated an interest in participating.  One or more of those members of the BC who have agreed to the proposal or draft will review and respond to every comment submitted via the CAB by any CC member.

Sept. 3.: Teleconference to decide whether or not it is feasible, based on progress so far, to complete the revision by the end of 2106.  If a majority of the BC agrees that it is not possible to complete the revision, we will report that fact to the Ex Com and either abandon work on the Bylaws together or shift our focus to regular amendments, as the BC members agree.

Sept. 4- no later than Sept 30: Continuation of drafting process.  If a revision is feasible, this will be mostly fine-tuning and organizing the agreed drafts according to the proposals into a whole draft revision.

The whole revision (if feasible) will be released in draft form for comments on the CAB as soon as possible, no later than September 30, 2016, provided that at least three members of the BC agree to it.  A copy of the draft will be sent to every member of the CC by email with an invitation to comment via the CAB.

~Sept. 30 - November 12:  The BC responds to comments and revises the whole revision draft, subject to continuing agreement of at least three members of the BC to any changes.

November 13:  The BC meets somewhere in person to celebrate and to release the Bylaw Report, consisting of whatever has been agreed to by that time.  Any interested members of the CC are welcome to celebrate with them.

If you have read this far and have comments, feel free to provide them.  Please keep your criticism constructive, meaning do suggest an acceptable alternative, if something is not to your liking.  I will ignore any merely negative criticism.

If you are anyone interested in following the revision at a high level only, follow this blog.  If you are a CC member interested in commenting via the CAB, please contact me in writing and you will be added to the commenters list.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

FBI v. Apple and My Own Uncrackable Authentication Code

Recently, the FBI moved for an ex-parte order to force Apple to create and digitally sign operating system code that Apple did not want to create.  "Ex-parte" means that they wanted to be granted the judicial order without letting Apple fight it in court.  Sort of a "shoot first and sort everything else out later" approach under the "All Writs Act," its application said to be unprecedented in the present context.  Once the FBI had its hands on the program Apple would create under the threat of force, all the court proceedings in the world couldn't prevent them from using it on any phone they chose.  So Apple sued to vacate the order the FBI had obtained ex parte.  Only then did the FBI change their  petition such that Apple would maintain control of the phone while they performed the breaking in remotely.

We may as well assume that the motives of the FBI for proceeding this way were pure: they just wanted to crack the phone used by a mass murderer around the time the evil deeds were done, to discover all of the mass murderer's collaborators, among other things.  They did not consider the request to be onerous, and were baffled and frustrated by Apple's refusal to do as requested.  They were not intentionally trying to pull a fast one before their opponents could react, or if they were, it was only because they were ignorant of the full impact of the order they sought.  Let's just assume the FBI investigators and lawyers had good intentions, and not get into imagining darker conspiracy theories.

A number of amicus briefs have been filed in the case, on the side of Apple.  There is a list of them over here. The briefs I have read argue on grounds of misuse of the All Writs Act, and on First Amendment grounds.  The brief by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and "46 technologists, researchers and cryptographers" is based entirely on the First Amendment.  It argues that forcing Apple to write code and digitally sign it is equivalent to forcing them to write a letter saying things they don't want to say, and then signing it.  Worse, actually, because digital signatures are more secure than ink scribbles, so their forced misuse is more dangerous.

The program the FBI wants would disable the iPhone's operating system so that it will accept automatic password guesses.  Once normal security precautions are disabled, the passwords can be guessed using a brute force algorithm, which is likely to achieve results in a relatively short time.  Any police force, spy agency, criminal or hacker would very much like to have such a tool, which could be used to unlock any iPhone sharing the same operating system.  It is the association of Apple's digital signature with the code that would make the tool effective.  Without Apple's signal to authenticate the program, every iPhone would refuse to install the code, so it would be useless.

There may be things that Apple could do to lessen the security risk of having such a highly sought after phone-cracking program laying about in an authenticated state.  For example, it could cause the phone screen to flash a prominent warning if the program is installed.  After using it once, it could blacklist the phone-cracking program using a regular operating system update so that iPhones in general would refuse to install it in the future.  And probably other things that I cannot imagine.

Whether or not such safeguards can eliminate the risk of creating the phone-cracking code is unknowable, even by the security experts at Apple.  One security threat is slightly unobvious, but severe.  This threat will arise socially, from the inevitability of future requests for the phone-cracker.  If the FBI's request is granted this time, similar requests will certainly be made in the future.  Apple will receive thousands of requests for the program from powerful agencies all around the world, each of them positioned to cause Apple and its customers serious problems if refused.  To comply with all these requests, Apple will have to keep the program in a "weaponized" state ready for use.  Apple (and every other smartphone supplier) will have to hire a team to maintain and secure the phone-cracking program, to service all of the requests, and to release timely and complete blacklists or other security features after each request is completed.  The team will have to operate absolutely error-free in a high-pressure environment, under constant pressure from police, spy agencies, foreign governments, and hackers.  Every member of the team must resist the temptation for enormous payouts from stealing the code and selling it.  How long do you suppose such a team could operate, before the security of the iPhone is seriously compromised, either intentionally, or by mistake?  What will be the cost to the smartphone industry, and to our society, when that happens?   If, as seems probable, the phone-cracking program cannot be safely secured once created, the FBI request is self-destructive bureaucratic incompetence at its most farcical, akin to ordering a company to produce weaponized, self-replicating anthrax, and release it into the air conditioning system of FBI headquarters. 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the phone-cracking program can be secured.  Then the legal issues are more nuanced and interesting.  For the sake of considering those arguments, let's indulge in that fantasy for a little while.  If the phone-cracker can be safely secured, then the remaining objection on First Amendment grounds is that writing code is a form of protected speech that the federal government cannot compel, regardless of security concerns.  The EFF brief does a good job of making this argument and pointing out the legal precedent for it.   Apple cannot be compelled to write code that compromises its beliefs and property interests, any more than it could be compelled to advertise or publish natural-language statements that it fundamentally disagrees with or that will do it harm.

A counterargument may be that the FBI just wants a particular phone unlocked and does not really care how it is done.  So the request is more like requiring a locksmith to make a key -- no compelled speech is involved.  The locksmith-key analogy should fail in the context of this case.  Although my bias is against allowing any compulsion, the EFF has the better argument.  If the court ultimately rules that coding cannot be compelled from a citizen even when the compulsion does not create great security risks or economic harm, that will be a step forward towards building a freer society.  So in a sense, the more the FBI argues that no great security risk is involved in cracking the iPhone, the more it sets up the legal landscape for a broader standard protecting software as free speech.

Bear with me as I only seem to change the subject abruptly.  I know of an uncrackable sort of signature, although it's not digital.  In a manner of speaking, it's based on quantum effects.  I am my own uncrackable authentication code.  My own unique genetic code, combined with the unique environment in which the genetic code ran its programming, created a unique personality as a sort of emergent mind/body combo that functions both as an autonomous person and a secure authentication code for that person.  At the same time, I am totally unsigned: no key is required to decrypt me.  That's some hard core coding.  So forgive me for feeling there might be a kick-ass coder behind all that . . . but we'll save that discussion for another day.

My authentication code couldn't be duplicated exactly, and even it it could, it wouldn't be worth the effort for somebody to make an exact, or even close, copy.  The hacker would just end up with a copy of me, an autonomous person.  What would be use of that, when natural persons can be supplied more simply by breeding?  Assuming you believe that copying humans for the purpose of stealing their identities is not practically attainable, you can rest assured that my personal presence in the flesh cannot convincingly be faked for long.  Whatever it is I am, it is me that is really there, and not some close copy.  All you need to do is pay attention and make sure.  Put together a group of people like me, who can authenticate each others' identities, empathize with each other, and communicate regarding abstractions such as tomorrow, yesterday, and love, and you've got yourself the basis for a society based on trust.  Each person is their own avatar.

In some environments, the identity of the avatar cannot be relied on.  Consider, for example, an online community in which each member is known by their avatar.  Suppose some of these members have cracked the system so that they can assume the avatar of any other member.  We'll call these members the "shape shifters." Let's consider what sorts of things could happen.

Can this group that includes highly capable shape shifters form a society based on trust?  Suppose only some of the people in the group are capable and willing to shape shift, and those who cannot shape shift do not know that anyone else can.  The non-shifters will then be manipulated by the shifters, if not to the point of social breakdown, than at least to the point of exploitation, meaning causing the non-shifters to behave as they would not unless fooled by false identities assumed by the shifters. 

If every member of the group indulges in undetectable shape shifting, the group cannot form a society.  If the members know that all, or an indeterminate number of others can shape shift, they will not trust anyone, unless every member of the group is always trustworthy.  In the general case, not everyone will be trustworthy, because society is precisely how a group of people can build trust among themselves.  Society is the chicken for the egg of trust; or the egg for the chicken of trust, whichever you prefer.  Where trust has not already been established, it will necessarily be lacking.  Not knowing who is trustworthy, members will avoid being in any position of vulnerability, and so lose out on opportunities to build trust.  They will treat everyone as complete strangers because they cannot tell who is strange and who is familiar; they never know whether or not the avatar they are dealing with is real.  They will avoid social intimacy with others, or strive to dominate and control them. 

If some of them do not know others can shape shift, and still indulge themselves in shape shifting, then the whole of their interactions will be at best a confused, self-deluding muddle; at worst a murderous cage match.  It is interesting to speculate about different outcomes, but it would be unethical to run such experiments without constraints that would contaminate the results.  The point is, the ability to accurately identify others is fundamental to trust, and trust is essential to positive social interaction.  The more complex the society, the more important accurate identification by and of every member of the society is.

Unless and until online identities are as secure as our identities in the flesh, online societies cannot develop the same level of trust as societies that operate at critical times in the flesh.  This is why it's important to get out to meet your neighbors, to attend meetings of like-minded people interested in mutual aid, and to engage in old fashioned politics.  These in-person interactions should be used enable those who participate to get to know one another, to interact in positive ways, and gradually build up trust.

Surveillance, phone-cracking, undercover police stings, the use of informants, and other acts of subterfuge are akin to shape shifting.   They are fundamentally anti-social activities that operate by undermining trust within groups.   That is part of their purpose, to disrupt socialization within competing groups.  The attack on the iPhone, whatever its motive, if it succeeds will have the effect of disrupting socialization within the group of everybody that uses smartphones without secure operating systems.  If the FBI gets what it originally asked for, soon that group will be everybody who uses any kind of smartphone, including the FBI and all of its employees and contractors.

For all the controversy over the FBI request, it is heartening to see so many rallying to the defense of Apple.  It means that the executives of the supporting companies, and the thought leaders in the application of computer science to meet social needs, understand the importance of personal security on personal terminal devices, whatever their motives.  Some of those same people also have an interest is gathering as much metadata as they can about all of us, and do indeed possess vast troves of this data.  There have been and will continue to be battles about who owns this metadata: the people who collect it, or the people who the data is about.  There is a border between the two that needs to be better defined, and there will always be territory on both sides of that border.  So the information barons of the present age resist the intrusion of the federal police monopoly upon their turf.  It matters not that defense of their information empires is not rooted in altruism.  It is behind the barons' security walls that online communities will build trust-based social networks.  And it will be the resistance of the people and their public representatives to the barons' pushing the border of public metadata too close to our private lives that will prevent those security walls from becoming prisons.

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Photo credit
"Bleeding Braeburn" by Earl
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