Archives: 10/2010

Unclear on Internet Security and Surveillance

The Washington Post has a poorly thought through editorial today on the Justice Department’s “CALEA for the Cloud” initiative. That’s the formative proposal to require all Internet services to open back doors to their systems for court-ordered government surveillance.

“Some privacy advocates and technology experts have sounded alarms,” says the Post, “arguing that such changes would make programs more vulnerable to hackers.”

Those advocates—of privacy and security both—are right. Julian Sanchez recently described here how unknown hackers exploited surveillance software to eavesdrop on high government officials in Greece.

“Some argue that because the vast majority of users are law-abiding citizens, the government must accept the risk that a few criminals or terrorists may rely on the same secure networks.”

That view is also correct. The many benefits of giving the vast majority of law-abiding people secure communications outstrips the cost of allowing law-breakers also to have secure communications.

But the Post editorial goes on, sounding in certainty but exhibiting befuddlement.

The policy question is not difficult: The FBI should be able to quickly obtain court-approved information, particularly data related to a national security probe. Companies should work with the FBI to determine whether there are safe ways to provide access without inviting unwanted intrusions. In the end, there may not be a way to perfectly protect both interests — and the current state of technology may prove an impenetrable obstacle.

The policy question, which the Post piece begs, is actually very difficult. Would we be better off overall if most or all of the information that traverses the Internet were partially insecure so that the FBI could obtain court-approved information? What about protocols and communications that aren’t owned or controlled by the business sector—indeed, not controlled by anyone?

The Tahoe-LAFS secure online storage project, for example—an open-source project, not controlled by anyone—recently announced its intention not to compromise the security of the system by opening back doors.

The government could require the signatories to the statement to change the code they’re working on, but thousands of others would continue to work with versions of the code that are secure. As long as people are free to write their own code—and that will not change—there is no way to achieve selective government access that is also secure.

The current state of technology, thankfully, is an impenetrable obstacle to compromised security in the interest of government surveillance. The only conclusion here, which happily increases our security and liberty overall, is that everyone should have access to fully secure communications.

Power Corrupts (Now With Science!)

The humor site Cracked rounds up some serious social science on the psychological effects of power and authority. The results are sobering—if not entirely surprising. When people in experimental environments were made to feel as though they were powerful—either by recalling actual instances for their lives or by being placed in simulated positions of power for a few hours—researchers found that they became less compassionate, less prone to take the perspective of others, more able to lie without feeling guilty about it, and more prone to consider themselves exempt from the rules and standards they righteously insist apply to others. What’s striking is how quickly and easily the experimenters elicited dramatic behavioral differences given that (unlike people who actively seek power) their “powerful” and control groups were randomly chosen.

It’s useful to keep this in mind because, while the overwhelming lesson of the last half century of social psychology is that situational influences can easily swamp the effect of individual differences in character, our political rhetoric takes scant account of this. Political campaigns focus heavily on questions of “character”—which especially in the case of “outsider” campaigns should be of limited predictive value. Republican candidates and officials try to portray Democrats as arrogant and out of touch, while Democrats cast Republicans as callous and greedy. In each case, the message is that these are bad people, and their character flaws are somehow related to their specific ideologies. The remedy is, invariably, to replace them in positions of power with better people from the other team. These social science results suggest that this is unlikely to work: The problem is power itself.

Hot Heads and Government Failure

The left-wing blogosphere and left-leaning newspapers have spent the past few days joyously incensed over the story of a Tennessee city fire department that allowed a home to burn because the homeowner hadn’t paid his annual fire fee.

AlterNet’s Jonathan Holland titled-and-teased his post on the fire:

Ayn Rand Conservatism at Work – Firefighters Let Family’s House Burn Down Because Owner Didn’t Pay $75 Fee

Talk of limited government is appealing until you see what it actually means in practice: a society in which it’s every man for himself.

ThinkProgress’s Zaid Jilani thundered that the fire demonstrates that there are two competing visions of American society:

One, the conservative vision, believes in the on-your-own society, and informs a policy agenda that primarily serves the well off and privileged sectors of the country. The other vision, the progressive one, believes in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background. The conservative vision was on full display last week in Obion County, Tennessee.

(An aside: ThinkProgress loves to throw in partisan barbs, so Jilani claims that “every seat” of the Obion County Commission is “filled by a Republican,” a claim that Holland echoes. Nope. But then, ThinkProgress recently harangued Michael Cannon for an opinion that isn’t his, so ya’ know…)

Finally, today the New York Times editorial page chimes in:

In any case, the founding fathers left no message that government can make an object lesson of a neglectful citizen by letting his house burn down. The [homeowners] deserve an apology, even if it won’t come from the candidates peddling dreams of constricted government.

It’s unfortunate that these writers didn’t pause from their fervor to consider the facts. In a nutshell: The firefighters involved were from a city government fire department following a city government policy concerning people who didn’t pay a city government fee for a 20-year-old city government program that was adopted in response to a county government decision.

John Galt in Nomex this ain’t.

Beyond the facts, these writers are confused about basic political theory.

All three writers argue that fire service is a public good that shouldn’t be left to private action. “Public good” is a technical term referring to a type of market failure in which (to over-simplify) it would be easy for some people to benefit from a good without paying their fair share for it. As a result, public goods are at risk of being under-provided because of all the free-riding. The classic (though flawed) example of a public good is a lighthouse: a ship can benefit from the safety of its beacon without contributing to the lighthouse’s construction and upkeep.

But it’s unclear how the Obion County fire would be an example of a public goods failure – obviously a homeowner who fails to contribute to fire service can be excluded from receiving the service. A better example in support of the public goods argument might be that fire service is publicly provided so as to protect the neighbors of a house that’s on fire – though again, if you read the details of the Obion County fire, you find that it provides an example that such neighbors can be protected.

Indeed, the Obion County fire seems a clear example of government failure, not market failure. Because city government provides the service (albeit through a voluntary fee system for people like the affected owner who live outside the city lines), people likely consider it a subsidized public service. As a result, there is strong disincentive for any private firm to enter the market and offer competing service. It’s not difficult to imagine what a private fire service would do in an event like the Obion fire: it likely would extinguish the blaze and then send the homeowner a bill. There are plenty of examples of this sort of practice in private marketplaces. And it’s what the government fire company in Obion should have done. Instead, the firefighters stood by and watched the house burn.

One can’t blame the NYT editorial page, ThinkProgress, and AlterNet for trying to spin an example of government failure into a tale of the horrors of limited government. Just a few weeks out from a national election in which progressive candidates appear poised for a major waxing, the last thing the progressive side needs is a heartrending example of government failure. And yet, the Obion County fire is an example of why that waxing is sorely needed — and justified.

Congratulations, Mario Vargas Llosa

On behalf of all of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, I warmly congratulate Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa for having won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Mario has distinguished himself not only as one of the world’s greatest novelists, but also as Latin America’s most well-known classical liberal—a champion of democratic capitalism who has never been afraid of speaking truth to power. His essays and tireless activism have educated millions of people in Latin America and inspired new generations to cherish and cultivate a culture of liberty. His vision of a modern Latin America has also informed Cato’s work in the region and beyond. We are honored and grateful that Mario has long been a generous friend of Cato’s and look forward to continuing that friendship in pursuit of advancing the liberal principles we share.

Snyder v. Phelps: The Constitution Protects ‘Outrageous’ Speech Too

I’ve resisted commenting on Snyder v. Phelps, the “funeral protest case,” because, as the old saying goes, hard cases make bad law.  And in this instance, really weird and repugnant speech makes for a lot of sound and fury signifying very little.

Still, the bizarre and inflammatory facts of the case – protestors show up at soldiers’ funerals to make the point that these deaths are God’s retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality – have gained plenty of media interest, particularly during this relatively uneventful term at the Supreme Court.  So I have commented a few times on the radio and yesterday attended the oral argument, the transcript of which you can read here and audio for which should be released on the Court’s website tomorrow.

At the end of the day, this case implicates all sorts of legal issues but the First Amendment is almost tangential to it.  A private cemetery can and should remove unwanted visitors for trespassing – but the Phelpses didn’t enter the cemetery.  A town can pass ordinances restricting the time, place, and manner of protests – but the Phelpses stayed within all applicable regulations and followed police instructions.  Violent or aggressive protestors can be both prosecuted and sued for assault, harassment, and the like – but the Phelpses’ protests are neither loud nor involve “getting up in the grill” of people, as their lawyer (and church member) put it during oral argument.  In short, there’s very little to this case and the Phelpses’ actions, ugly and objectionable as they are, are as constitutionally protected as a neo-Nazi parade.  If people don’t like that, they can change state laws to put certain further restrictions on protests near funerals or other sensitive areas – or federal laws in the case of military cemeteries—but they shouldn’t be able to sue simply for being offended.  Eugene Volokh has a more detailed analysis in the Wall Street Journal.

Oh, and as for predicting how the Court will rule, I’ll say 8-1 for the Phelpses in a narrow opinion, with Justice Alito dissenting (as he did last year in United States v. Stevens, the “depictions of animal cruelty” case).

While You Were Watching the Race to the Top…

…President Obama and Congress were doling out tens-of-billions of dollars to the education status quo while doing little of meaningful, reform-y substance. Now we see the payoff: President Obama has gotten bipartisan accolades for supposedly being a different kind of Democrat on education – one willing to take on teacher unions – while he’s fully kept union allegiances.

Reports the Washington Post about National Education Association plans to spend $15 million on largely Dem-friendly, midterm-election advertisements:

Karen M. White, the NEA’s political director, said the 3.2 million-member union is in sync with Obama more often than not. As an example, she pointed to his support for a $10 billion education funding bill that the Democratic-led Congress passed in August over Republican opposition.

“That education jobs bill got so many of our members engaged,” White said. “It was a turning point for us.”

She played down controversy over Obama’s school reform agenda as “bumps in the road,” adding, “we share the same goals as this administration.”

It really wasn’t hard to see the politics at play here: Talk a lot about reform, expend riches to protect the status quo, win good will from all sides. And heck, who gets hurt? Only taxpayers and students, that’s all.