This is a privacy and freedom rant. You’ve been warned.
I was watching a CNN video this morning about the Feds releasing satellite time to local law enforcement. The spokesman was saying how proud we should be that we’ve spent billions on satellites to spy on foreign countries and now they’re being used on us.
Up came the dreaded 99% Rule.
The 99% Rule says that something is acceptable if, for 99% of the time, it works the way it is supposed to work. The thing works for the vast majority of cases. It is optimized.
Don’t like the way articles are ranked at your popular social aggregation site? Well, it works for 99% of the folks, so like it or leave it. Don’t like all the crap that comes installed on your PC? Well, 99% of folks find it helpful, so that’s how we made it. Don’t like the default ingredients on your cheeseburger? Well market research shows 99% of folks say it’s acceptable.
We’re hitting 99%. It ain’t perfect, but we’re doing a damn good job. We should be giving ourselves a pat on the back. Utilitarian values at their best.
This is all fine and dandy. Heck, I agree with it for lots of stuff. But the 99% Rule doesn’t work for everything. And when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work at all.
Take backscatter scans, being installed at most major airports. I don’t know if this has really sank in for a lot of people, but backscatter scans are actually taking naked pictures of you. They just add in some image effects in the press releases and as default settings on the machines to make them harder to perv.
Take the image above, which was released as part of a PR campaign in an airport for the machines. The problem here is that they didn’t bother to do much except invert the colors. Inverting them again we get —
Picture pulled. Looks like this example was bogus. Apologies to those involved. I made an effort to source the picture but didn’t discover the TSA page that Nate points out in the comments below.
Look. I don’t like running naked pictures of people on my blog. This is a family deal and the kids read it. But geesh people, what is it going to take to realize that we are submitting ourselves to strangers looking at us naked just for the privilege to fly?
And guess what? It works 99% of the time. Except for when it doesn’t. Then you get people becoming violent because of comments about their genitalia. Or people making comments about women’s breasts. Or the revelation that they can actually save the pictures.
If the science articles say these machines are taking picture-perfect pictures of what’s under your clothes, and some industry guy is telling you it’s okay because we’ve programmed our way out of the problem, do you think maybe there might be a bit of bias in one of these sources?
There is no doubt in my mind that if every person in the United States were relieved of their guns, we would have no gun violence (I do not own a gun). There is no doubt that if the people at the airport had naked pictures of everybody that it would decrease the amount of possibly-dangerous contraband brought onto airplanes. The question is whether the drawbacks are worth the restrictions. If it works 99% of the time, is it okay that 1% where it doesn’t work.
In both of these examples I’d have to say “no”. And now, incredulously enough, the people that make the backscatter scanners are making mobile versions. Yes, people can ride around in trucks with basically x-ray vision.
The vans are supposed to be used to find contraband and other things that don’t fit in simply by riding around. One imagines these devices should be immensely popular.
Also in the last month we have word that the Ninth District has ruled that cops can sneak onto your property and tag your car with a GPS, thereby tracking wherever you drive. Without a warrant.
Once again, for 99% of the time, this is probably a good thing. Cops could care less where most people go, and being able to easily track criminals has its advantages. The problem is that there’s always going to be that 1%. Sometimes you’re going someplace you don’t want others to know. Sometimes the people in charge of tracking you have ulterior motives — which are very easy to have when there’s no warrant involved. That pesky 1%
I’ve trashed the law-and-order types a bit, generally considered the right part of the political spectrum, but I could easily do this for the left. Whereas the right tends to couch their assaults on liberty in terms of the 99% Rule or the war-on-terror, the left seems happy enough just to be morally outraged about something and have a law that works about 80% of the time. I could go into depth here, but won’t. Suffice it to mention the nifty 1099 rule — if you are a business and spend 600 bucks in cash anywhere, you have to give them a 1099. This was critically needed as part of the health reform law. Or the requirement that the government make us purchase health care. Must have missed that in the constitution.
But please don’t focus on any particular issue. Look at this from the big picture.
The problem is, when we get into freedoms, taxes, privacy, and anonymity — the 99% Rule just doesn’t work any more. Or, if you like philosophy, It’s not utilitarian morality when we make trades for the majority that set precedents that we cannot continue following. Kant’s categorical imperative holds whether we recognize it or not. (This is why the “sacrifice the thousand to save the billion” arguments about utilitarian reasoning fail. You cannot sacrifice the thousand. To do so would start a process that would dissolve the entire social structure, which is a greater evil)
And before we get into “innocent until proven guilty”, we don’t need to have a criminal trial in order to punish people. It’s not either “you’re free and innocent” or “you are being tried for X”. There’s a lot of gray area where real people can get hurt because other people with good intentions just didn’t think things through. Having naked pictures of your wife or kid on the internet because some scanner technician hacked the system is not just “collateral damage” as a result of using the machines. It’s an intricate part of using them. And when we decide to use them, we decide to accept those consequences. You can’t run away from that by saying the system just isn’t perfect yet, or that nobody was physically harmed.
And the probabilities accumulate, taking a a bunch of perhaps tiny problems and making an horrendously large result.
This year we decide that the war on terror is so important that the 1% problem with naked pictures is acceptable. Next year we come up with a test that checks for pedophilia leanings — works 99% of the time. The following year we make every business file 1099s for every little bit of commerce they do — works 99% of the time to catch cheaters. Then we implement mandatory genetic tests for paternity in child support cases. Then we put in cameras to catch speeders, etc.
It doesn’t take very many of these systems at all for the 1% chance of false positive to multiply and raise to 20 or even 30%. And many of these are recurring situations — it’s not like you only walk through one x-ray machine in your life.
We end up — very quickly — in a place where most citizens stand a pretty good chance of getting screwed over by their government at least once in their lives. Probably several times. All for the greater good.
This is not an argument against government. In fact, it’s the opposite. For government to work it must have the consent of the governed. And I just don’t see that happening as long as we keep getting carried away with the 99% Rule. In fact I sadly think it’s either going to tear us apart or drive all of our spirit from us. Either of those is unacceptable.If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.