Monday, February 22, 2016

Apple Signals Its Craven Capitulation To FBI Backdoor Demands

Among civil libertarians, Apple has — hitherto — garnered many plaudits for its very public defiance of an FBI-obtained court order to create a new backdoor in iPhones, one that would allow anyone in possession of same to easily unlock the device. Apple's open letter to its customers makes very clear what is at stake:
Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.
The DOJ has invoked the All Writs Act, a very old, general-purpose law (emboldening mine):
It is essential to this story that the order to Apple is not a subpoena: it is issued under the All Writs Act of 1789, which says that federal courts can issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” Read as a whole, this simply means that judges can tell people to follow the law, but they have to do so in a way that, in itself, respects the law. The Act was written at a time when a lot of the mechanics of the law still had to be worked out. But there are qualifications there: warnings about the writs having to be “appropriate” and “agreeable,” not just to the law but to the law’s “principles.” The government, in its use of the writ now, seems to be treating those caveats as background noise.  If it can tell Apple, which has been accused of no wrongdoing, to sit down and write a custom operating system for it, what else could it do?
 In fact, this legal strategy appears to have been decided upon when the political winds for legislation turn sour last year:
In a secret meeting convened by the White House around Thanksgiving, senior national security officials ordered agencies across the U.S. government to find ways to counter encryption software and gain access to the most heavily protected user data on the most secure consumer devices, including Apple Inc.’s iPhone, the marquee product of one of America’s most valuable companies, according to two people familiar with the decision.

The approach was formalized in a confidential National Security Council “decision memo,” tasking government agencies with developing encryption workarounds, estimating additional budgets and identifying laws that may need to be changed to counter what FBI Director James Comey calls the “going dark” problem: investigators being unable to access the contents of encrypted data stored on mobile devices or traveling across the Internet. Details of the memo reveal that, in private, the government was honing a sharper edge to its relationship with Silicon Valley alongside more public signs of rapprochement.
You might think that this would apply only to terrorism cases, but as Jim Comey made plain, the FBI intends to use such backdoors in even such common instances as car wrecks. So it was with great sadness I read a story today in Gizmodo that Tim Cook now is calling for the creation of a government commission to arbitrate the request. The reading I have of this is
  1. He does not think Apple can win the court case.
  2. He is perfectly aware of who would populate such a commission, i.e. surveillance state apologists who would immediately roll over for the government.
Which is to say, charges that Apple is making a show of opposing this order for purely commercial reasons appear now to have more weight than they did Friday. Jim Comey's cynical Lawfare blog post on the subject could be right, for the wrong reasons, but then, he's the one putting Apple's neck in a noose.

Footnote: Why did Gizmodo understand what's at stake here on Wednesday...
If Apple makes this software, it will allow the FBI to bypass security measures, including an auto-delete function that erases the key needed to decrypt data once a passcode is entered incorrectly after ten tries as well as a timed delay after each wrong password guess. Since the FBI wants to use the brute force cracking method—basically, trying every possible password—both of those protections need to go to crack Farook’s passcode. (Of course, if he used a shitty password like 1234, the delay wouldn’t be as big a problem, since the FBI could quickly guess.)

The security measures that the FBI wants to get around are crucial privacy features on iOS9, because they safeguard your phone against criminals and spies using the brute force attack. So it’s not surprising that Apple is opposing the court order. There is more than one person’s privacy at stake here!
... yet utterly forget it today?
The feds disagree. In a Sunday night editorial on Lawfare, a national security blog supported by the Brookings Institute, FBI director James Comey claims that the case “isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message.” Comey begs:
We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.
So it’s a classic he-said-he-said situation. ...
No, it's not. Gizmodo got blinded by Comey's authoritarian lunacy. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

STEM And Competence Vs. Credentialism

Scott Alexander wrote and then disappeared a great, long, rambling rant about various matters, in part related to credentials vs. competence. This sparked a spirited conversation in the comments, which is all we have of it now. (I suspect he plans eventually on trimming it down to fighting weight, and republishing it then.) I wanted to focus here on this snippet (quoted parts are from Alexander's original):
The Blue Tribe protects its own and wants to impoverish anyone who doesn’t kowtow to their institutions. For the same reason, we get bizarre occupational licensing restrictions like needing two years of training to braid people’s hair, which have been proven time and time again not to work or improve quality.
The opposite of credentialism is meritocracy—the belief that the best person should get the job whether or not they’ve given $200,000 to Yale. In my crazy conspiracy theory, social justice is the attack arm of the educated/urban/sophisticated/academic Blue Tribe, which works by constantly insisting all competing tribes are racist and sexist and therefore need to be dismantled/taken over/put under Blue Tribe supervision for their own good. So we get told that meritocracy is racist and sexist. Colleges have pronounced talking about meritocracy to be a microaggression, and the media has declared that supporting meritocracy is inherently racist. Likewise, we are all told that standardized tests and especially IQ are racist and hurt minorities, even though in reality this testing helps advance minorities better than the current system.
As we saw when Asians rose up to block Democratic efforts to reinstate affirmative action at the University of California,  the winners and losers in such efforts are not always readily discernible. But when that same UC pronounces meritocracy as microaggression, you know which direction the system's overlords intend to take the discussion: toward more credentials, and less actual aptitude. Popehat collective blogger @ClarkHat* suggested why progressives have a love/hate relationship with STEM disciplines:
I seem to recall Alexander mentioning a "Silicon Valley 2.0" as a place taken over by credentialists, which would be a field day for people like the censorious Anita Sarkeesian (who lately seems to have snuck into Twitter's censorship board) and naked lunatics like Shanley Kane, whose editorial stance is that competence is the new sexism. I would hope it goes without saying that these people must be resisted with every tool at our disposal.

* I've since been informed that ClarkHat no longer writes for Popehat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The ACLU Comes Out Against Another Civil Right, Mens Rea

It's been a long while since I wrote any checks to the ACLU, and even then, I only gave to the nonprofit ACLU Foundation, which is the arm that files lawsuits. It might surprise some to learn that the ACLU proper is a 501(c)4 and engages in much politicking I despise, which informs their at first strange but entirely comprehensible rejection of the return of mens rea to criminal law. As explained in Gideon Yaffe's New York Times editorial,
As a legal principle, mens rea means that causing harm should not be enough to constitute a crime; knowingly causing harm should be. Walking away from the baggage carousel with a suitcase you mistook for your own isn’t theft; it’s theft only if you knew you didn’t own it. Ordinary citizens may assume that this common-sense requirement is already the law of the land. And indeed law students are taught that prosecutors must prove not just that a defendant did something bad, but also that his frame of mind made him culpable when he did it.

But over the years, exceptions to the principle have become common because mens rea requirements have not been consistently detailed in laws. In one often-cited case, the president of a company that mistakenly shipped mislabeled drugs was convicted of a crime even though he had no way of knowing that the labels were incorrect. In another, a truck driver crossing the Canadian border into Washington to deliver cases of beer was convicted of drug trafficking even though prosecutors produced no evidence that he knew or should have known that the truck had a secret compartment filled with drugs. In these cases and many more like them, the prosecution secured conviction without showing that the defendant had a guilty mind.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero objected that
These plans, if implemented, would require prosecutors to prove that a defendant was aware of the illegal nature of his or her actions and intended to cause them. Proving such intent would be nearly impossible for many financial, environmental and regulatory crimes but relatively simple for drug and property crimes
In other words, because such a law could defend rich white guys, because we want to convict people we know are guilty despite their own knowledge of the facts on the ground (and mental state, therefore), we would rather throw out the whole legislation. It's hard to express just how corrupt and political the ACLU has become, but there it is.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Scott Alexander Unpacks The Latest "Sexism In Tech" Study

I hadn't been over to Scott Alexander's blog, Star Slate Codex, in quite some while, but Cathy Young pointed me at his latest, an essay about sexism in tech that starts with a study done on GitHub change submitters.
They find that women get more (!) requests accepted than men for all of the top ten programming languages. They check some possible confounders – whether women make smaller changes (easier to get accepted) or whether their changes are more likely to serve an immediate project need (again, easier to get accepted) and in fact find the opposite – women’s changes are larger and less likely to serve project needs. That makes their better performance extra impressive.

So the big question is whether this changes based on obviousness of gender. The paper doesn’t give a lot of the analyses I want to see, and doesn’t make its data public, so we’ll have to go with the limited information they provide. They do not provide an analysis of the population as a whole (!) but they do give us a subgroup analysis by “insider status”, ie whether the person has contributed to that project before.
The bias comes in — and the media, of course, has latched onto — the part where outsider women get their changes accepted at a lower rate than outsider men. Yet, as Alexander further notes, nobody in the study bothered to control for approver gender (emboldening mine):
A commenter on the paper’s pre-print asked for a breakdown by approver gender, and the authors mentioned that “Our analysis (not in this paper — we’ve cut a lot out to keep it crisp) shows that women are harder on other women than they are on men. Men are harder on other men than they are on women.”

Depending on what this means – since it was cut out of the paper to “keep it crisp”, we can’t be sure – it sounds like the effect is mainly from women rejecting other women’s contributions, and men being pretty accepting of them. Given the way the media predictably spun this paper, it is hard for me to conceive of a level of crispness which justifies not providing this information.
 Indeed. The conspiracy theory of patriarchy doesn't have a lot of substance behind it, but keeping it well inflated is a full-time job, one that requires a great deal of artful dodging.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Camille Paglia's Happy Romp At Salon Celebrating Sanders' Non-Win

Camille Paglia, who gets the odd byline at Salon despite being almost entirely opposed to many of their orthodoxies, managed to get in a raucous essay on the rot in the Democratic party that Hillary Clinton most ably embodies, and how Bernie Sanders managed (at least in theory) to upend it:
With Bernie Sanders’ thrilling, runaway victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the old-guard feminist establishment in the U.S. has been dealt a crushing blow.

Despite emergency efforts by Gloria Steinem, the crafty dowager empress of feminism, to push a faltering Hillary over the finish line, Sanders overwhelmingly won women’s votes in every category except senior citizens. Last week, when she told TV host Bill Maher that young women supporting the Sanders campaign are just in it to meet boys, Steinem managed not only to insult the intelligence and idealism of the young but to vaporize every lesbian Sanders fan into a spectral non-person.

Steinem’s polished humanitarian mask had slipped, revealing the mummified fascist within. I’m sure that my delight was shared by other dissident feminists everywhere. Never before has the general public, here or abroad, more clearly seen the arrogance and amoral manipulativeness of the power elite who hijacked and stunted second-wave feminism.
Paglia is at her best with the sword, reminding us that Hillary's chief accomplishments have been as a self-serving, corrupt job-filler who hitched her star to her husband's much more impressive political career. She also goes in for an extended recounting of Gloria Steinem's many faults, which long-time Paglia-watchers will find familiar, particularly the editorial direction in which she took Ms. magazine: man-hating, dogmatic, snide, contemptuous of women who chose to be stay-at-home mothers and those opposing abortion on religious grounds, and even anti-scientific. (Steinem opposed the application of biology in academic feminist studies programs, a glaring flaw that informs all such to this day.) But Paglia falters with the shield; Sanders is every bit the hack Clinton is, aided not a little by an equally embarrassing and thin résumé, especially given his political durability in Congress. If he has turned out less corrupt than Ms. Clinton, it surely amounts to the fact he's had fewer opportunities for graft.

Of course, the story of Sanders' "thrilling, runaway" victory isn't over; The Daily Caller ran what appears to be a fairly speculative piece yesterday, repeated in many corners, that, thanks to the Democrats' byzantine primary system, Clinton will win the delegate battle in New Hampshire despite losing the popular vote. Weirdly, the establishment Clinton lost in New Hampshire in 2008 despite winning the popular vote, in a system that appears to largely act as a means to suppress upstarts while seeming to favor them.