We’re Not Ready to be a Surveillance State

Recent news has revealed what many already suspected – we have become a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual for a surveillance stateRecent news has revealed what many already suspected – that we are (or are about to become), a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

The kind of surveillance that was previously only in the realm of dystopian fiction has been revealed to not only be possible, but to be taking place right under our very noses, without our knowledge, our consent, or what we would consider proper oversight.

The thing is, we’ve been headed in this direction for a long time – companies have effectively been doing this for years now. What’s changed is the scope of the  surveillance, and the government’s involvement in (and use of) that surveillance.

This sort of surveillance is a by-product of the digital age we live in, and is not, by itself, a bad thing. What is bad is that government is getting deeply involved, and it is doing so very quickly, and without a chance for public debate (or even without the public’s knowledge!).

In light of the seeming inevitability of increased surveillance and data collection, and to prevent the absolutely certain slide into despotism and a de-facto police state, you need deep, fundamental protections against misuse of data – and such protections need to be built in, from the start – they are not the sort of thing that can be added on afterwards.

Technology is progressing so rapidly that our laws simply cannot keep up – even the ways we create laws is still largely stuck in the last century, so that even if we try to adapt to new technology, by the time we’re done, it’s too late.

Even more worrying is that even though our laws can’t keep up with technology, that’s not stopping our governments from taking advantage of that technology – and that creates a huge problem.

In a way this is like having a really old machine that we’re trying desperately to keep running, even though the manufacturer has long since gone out of business, and the purpose for which the machine was originally built no longer exists. Instead, we keep replacing parts as they break or wear out – which takes longer and longer, since we have to rebuild them from scratch (since no one makes them anymore). We keep trying to get the machine to do things it was never intended to do – bolting on additions and making adjustments, all without really knowing how it will affect the overall functioning of the machine, or even if it’ll work the way we want it to.

Programmers in the audience will recognize this pathological pattern of behavior – any large software system will often find itself in this very same situation. And when faced with this kind of situation, often the response will be to just throw it all out and start over again from scratch.

In law, as in software, the argument against doing this is usually “why throw it away, since it still works” or “why fix what isn’t broken?” But I think it’s clear, especially in the face of new technology and what we’ve learned recently is being done with that technology, that things are in fact NOT working, and that the system IS broken.

doubleplusungood (1984)We either need to start over, or more practically, immediately begin reforming the ways we deal with technology – from the ground up. The pace at which we adapt needs to keep up with the pace at which technology changes – the way we debate laws, the way we vote, the protections & systems needed to prevent abuse – all of these things need to be updated, and they need to be updated in a hurry.

Until our laws are fundamentally overhauled to provide the same kind of deeply embedded protections in this digital age that we previously enjoyed before computers existed, we simply are not ready to be a surveillance state.

That such a surveillance state is being created, before we are ready for it, is deeply disturbing and either needs to be stopped right now, or a concerted effort to reform our laws needs to happen, yesterday.

All I Want in a State…

I lay out my ideals for the “perfect state” – as in, the perfect state to live in.

All I want from a state (as in, the state I live in) is:

  • To not be taxed into oblivion (I know I’ll never get away from taxes entirely, so just… take it easy on me, OK?);
  • To have a reasonably efficient state government (i.e., to not have to go into a 1960’s era building with insufficient parking and fill out forms in triplicate on carbon paper with a No. 2 pencil just to get the license plate for my car);
  • To be reasonably easy for people to exercise their 2nd amendment rights (that is, don’t make it so I have to apply to the chief of police for permission to apply for permission to own a gun, have 6 personal references, provide a DNA sample, and an affidavit from my 3rd grade teacher attesting as to how often I used to play “cops and robbers” at recess); and most importantly,
  • The right to own (and better yet, carry in public) a sharpened 26 inch samurai sword. (For protection, of course – because “swords don’t run out of bullets.”)

That’s really all I want.

Is that too much to ask?

Treating our Legal Code like Computer Code

Looking at some pending legislation through the eyes of a computer programmer… and finding it… wanting.

I’ve posted before about the idea of treating our legal system (legal code) like a computer system (computer code):

Our legal code is almost entirely like an entire operating system written in undocumented Perl.

  1. There are no hints as to what any part of it is supposed to do and it is written in a language that to most people looks like line noise.
  2. Every significant patch is applied by adding an additional Perl module that overrides an existing method in an existing module, replacing all of the code in that method with a complete new copy of the method that is almost identical to the old one but adds or removes a backslash in a single regular expression.
  3. The entire core logic was written in a crunch session by a bunch of geeks locked in a room together and forced to design it by committee.
  4. The application was a rewrite of another application that never really worked well in the first place.
  5. Every function name is chosen explicitly to provoke an emotional response in the developer, e.g. thisFunctionSucks() or callMeNow().

Although that was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there was a certain grain of truth to it.

It seems that I’m not the only one to think this – and indeed, someone has taken the idea even further by applying systems design principles to the new health care reform legislation that the US Congress is working on at the moment.

Bruce F. Webster writes:

On the occasions where I have reviewed the actual text of major legislation, I have been struck by the parallels between legislation and software, particularly in terms of the pitfalls and issues with architecture, design, implementation, testing, and deployment. Some of the tradeoffs are even the same, such as trading off the risk of “analysis paralysis” (never moving beyond the research and analysis phase) and the risks of unintended consequences from rushing ill-formed software into production. Yet another similarity is that both software and legislation tend to leverage off of, interact with, call upon, extend, and/or replace existing software and legislation.  Finally, the more complex a given system or piece of legislation is, the less likely that it will achieve the original intent.

He then goes on to talk about some “design flaws” in HR 3200 – otherwise known as the “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.” (Brings to mind point #5 from the “Legal System as a Perl OS” quote from above, doesn’t it?)

Bruce then goes on make a point which is basically the same as point #2 in the “Legal System as a Perl OS” quote above:

Much of HR 3200 makes piecemeal modifications to existing legislation, often with little explanation as to intent and consequences.

Or to put it another way, entire sections of HR 3200 do nothing other than override some existing legislation in some incredibly small way, which will (presumably?) have huge (and in all likelihood, unintended and unforeseen) effects – much like how adding or removing a single backslash from a regular expression can have huge (and often unintended and unforeseen) effects on its pattern-matching behavior.

Bruce’s entire article (it’s the first of a 3-part series – as I write this, only parts 1 and 2 are done) is well worth reading – and in fact I highly recommend it, even for non-programmers.

Of course, if you ask me, I really think all legislators should be required to take a programming course or two – because, as I’ve said before (in my “A Programmer’s Perspective on Politics” article), laws are effectively the “operating system” of our society… and right now, the people writing our society’s “operating system” don’t seem to be particularly good programmers!!

What “The Lord of the Flies” Taught us about Free Markets

Taking the lessons of the book “The Lord of the Flies” and applying them to the so-called “Free Market.”

I’ve often said that: Laws are only needed when you can’t trust people to do the “right thing.” Looking at another way, you could say that the honor system only works when you can trust everyone involved to be… well, honorable.

Because of the simple facts of probability, as a population grows larger and larger, the probability of everyone being “honorable” decreases, until you reach a population size where it is 100% certain that some people will be dishonorable. At this stage, laws are required if you wish to retain any semblance of order.

When people are left alone in a situation where there are no laws, no outside authority, chaos results – call it the “Lord of the Flies” effect.

Flickr image by Enrico Fuente
Flickr image by Enrico Fuente

This has ramifications for what is traditionally called the “free market.” Remember that the entities involved in a “free market” are, if not people themselves, they are companies which are run by people (and are treated legally as people).

The ideal “free market” is one “free” of any regulation – letting the market “regulate itself.” When you consider that the “market” is just people (acting through companies) – you realize that the “free market” approach is, essentially, leaving corporations (run by people) alone in a situation with little to no laws or regulation.

Obviously, the idea of such a group “regulating itself” is absurd. The inevitable end result of such a system can only be chaos: a “Lord of the Flies” situation, but with companies instead of people. Brutal authority from the strongest, meanest, most vicious and largest. Innocent people – the ones who try to do the “right thing” are pushed aside and eventually killed.

Consider this carefully. This is a very disturbing consequence for those of us on the “outside” of the market, because we are effectively the “Piggies” in this situation.

Traditionally we have tried to deal with this situation with laws – the rallying call of “regulate! regulate! regulate!” But laws have their own problems, which stem from deep, fundamental flaws with our classical lawmaking mechanism.

The problems with laws are that laws reflect the culture of the lawmakers. (I don’t mean the “culture” in the larger sense of the people from which the lawmakers come, although that plays a factor. Instead, I refer to the culture of lawmakers themselves.)

In a society where lawmakers’ primary vested interest is not the “rightness” of what they do, but rather their own welfare (in the form of being elected again), the resulting policy created will be one reflective of these values – short term solutions that only serve to get lawmakers elected again, rather than doing the “right thing.” Problems are pushed on the next generation, after the current generation (of lawmakers) is gone (term limits). The “planning horizon” of such a government is limited to the length of the terms of its constituent members. This creates a problem in that these term lengths are usually much less than the lifetime of the people who are governed. As a result, laws are short-sighted and ill-conceived – the “law of the week” effect.

It would seem then that the challenges involved in solving the problems which afflict us are so deep-seated as to be unsurmountable. But I do not counsel despair!

We know the changes we would like to see, the behavior we would like to encourage – so the answer is to simply reward the behavior we want, and discourage (or punish) the behavior we don’t. This answer is so simple and obvious as to be almost laughable – but it has been proven to work, in more ways than you might realize.

We often use these same techniques on our children – allowances for when chores are done and behavior is good, revoking privileges (TV, access to the car, computer time, etc.) when behavior is bad. We use similar techniques when training animals – reward desired behavior, punish (by way of revoking attention or treats) undesired behavior.

These then are our possible solutions: to make lawmakers accountable to the laws they create long after they have left office. In democratic societies, perhaps to make the people who elected lawmakers accountable for the mistakes of the lawmakers after they have left office. In other words, make the primary motivating factor of the lawmaker not be their immediate re-election, but rather their long-term reputation; the long-term reputation of the laws they create.

When we have done this, then we can give proper attention to the “markets” which seem to dominate so much of our society in this day and age, and make laws that are not just punitive, but thoughtful and deeply connected to encouraging good behavior in all respects.

If we can do these things, we will have set up a situation where markets can truly be both “free” and “good” in that they will be encouraged to do the “right thing” always. Instead of enforcing arbitrary “thou shalt not” laws, we will have set up a system which by its very nature is conducive towards creating and maintaining a responsible, ethical, and fundamentally “good” market. I think that such a market will be infinitely better – and, arguably, more free than our current, so-called “free market.”