The 99% Rule (nsfw)

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.

image taken from backscatter scan

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.

Sic Semper Tyrannis

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14 thoughts on “The 99% Rule (nsfw)

  1. Sebastian Marshall

    Hey Daniel, good post, just one quick point -
    > 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).
    This is actually not true – any talented machinist in a machine shop can make decent firearms. During WWII, they converted a lot of bicycle shops in Western Europe to make submachine guns.
    This was before the internet made the plans for all these weapons freely available.
    If you disarmed everyone, only black marketers and criminals would have access to weapons. Look at Japan – no guns, except in the hands of the Yakuza. Now, the Yakuza thankfully have some honor codes about dealing with civilians and don’t gun people down, but I wouldn’t be confident for the rest of the world. A tight-knit society with good values and effective law enforcement prevents gun crime, regardless of the rates of firearm ownership. If you disarm all of society, the only people to re-arm will be criminals. Guns really aren’t that hard to manufacture these days.
    Rest of your post was good stuff, thanks for sharing.

  2. joe

    re: could vs couldn’t care less
    Pretty sure that there isn’t a “proof” per se in the link. If someone is being sarcastic, yes, ‘could care less’ might be appropriate. However the vast majority of cases will be hyperbolic and ‘ could not care less’ is correct.
    In the stated case above, it would seem that only ‘Couldn’t care less’ is the appropriate usage.

  3. steve

    Yeah, look how well that’s working for mexico where it’s illegal to own a gun. Oh wait, that’s wrong. The heavily armed drug cartels are actually making good progress in overthrowing the entire government.

  4. cak

    You are a fool. He was talking hypothetically, if you could remove all guns from the US, then it would be safer, but you can’t. We all know that.

  5. cak

    No, the correct phrase is “couldn’t care less”, despite what that fellow on the language blog says. He is wrong. “Couldn’t care less” makes sense, “could care less” does not.
    A lot of people miss hear the statement, and pass it on to others, like a mind virus.

  6. Alok

    Except that the body scanners are NOT working 99% of the time. Rather, they are working on some 99.9% of the people to find nothing. These scanners would be working 99% of the time when 99 out of 100 cases of concealed weapons are caught. In reality, 100% of the people are scanned to find the bad 0.01% cases. And yet, bad people would figure some way out of this (too). Then we may find that the scanners not working right 99% of the time, yet they bring the pain to 100% of the people. When would security people realize the truth??

  7. Richie Says Hipeople Hi

    About care less:
    When you can’t tell what’s sarcasm and what’s not, you are not using language properly.
    In written form it’s hard to tell what’s sarcasm, unless the context states otherwise -for example, when the author is consistently sarcastic
    And such is why “couldn’t” is better even when accounting for the sarcasm hypothesis.
    About removing all guns:
    You can’t remove all guns, you have combat knives as substitute or kitchen knives to stab stomach, forks to impale eyes, cellphones to throw at heads… fire axes to chop torsos. Anything could be a weapon, we are animals who, thanks for that, are amongst the top in the food chain.
    Violent needs, egocentric and bad feelings, ignorance and prejudice… That is what we need to part ways with.
    Most of us don’t need to kill each other to survive, yet we do to live even better or without the fear of a sudden attack to our integrity or out of some other self-righteous whim.


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