Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA scanners

It might be interesting to take the airport scanners that are getting attention at the moment and look at them through the lens of being false positive-centric.

Advanced technology helps find the true positives. The point of doing it is to find hidden bombs that could kill a lot of people.

However, taking a machine's representation as a stand-in for something real has problems. We also have lie detector machines, and their results are (if I have this correctly) not admissable as evidence in courtroom trials. So the scanners could be terrific, subject to the usual concerns: (a) incompetent technicians making mistakes, (b) A plant: falsified scanner images designed to target someone. It's rare, it's unusual, but not nearly as difficult to do in digital environments as in someone's dresser drawer. If the TSA starts to be used to do political persecution, what might happen next is that "the solution will unfold when the time comes, from the impact of the problem itself." People would make other arrangements - but like I asserted in the last post, if there always must be a "canary in a coalmine" or a kid must get killed at a crosswalk for the new traffic light to go in, the impact of the problem can indeed be said to have gotten the ball rolling for a general solution, but the family of that kid will see it differently.

If you trust the machine, if you trust the manufacturer (and they don't have a cloud over them, Diebold-style,) if you trust the technicians and you are confident that they are acting in good faith, I think these types of scanners could be an elimination of false positives. In a way, it's the opposite of an indiscriminate basket warrant. Or an indiscriminate camera on a street in London. It's technology being used at a very specific time and place, to make sure that nobody getting on a plane is going to do damage, to people and property, way out of proportion to its being a single event.

So leaving aside the dramatic flashpoints, most of what happens at an airport scanner is banal. As far as the banal annoyance and humiliation of having to deal with a lot of new crap at airports, I don't know. On the one hand, air travel had a martial quality in the first place. There's no mistaking the inside of an airport for a free place. I'm not that surprised that airports now feel like mini police-states, and I don't know that I mind. On the other hand, I think it's worrisome to be carving out exceptions for certain parts of a society. Airports are one point on the slippery slope. There is really no limit to the the sorts of events and social roles that could be invoked in order to gradually militarize more and more special exception zones within a representative democracy with a bill of rights, or a charter of rights and freedoms. The charter would still hold, except here, except over there, except on alternate Tuesdays, except at city hall, except at the airport and the train station and soon you have a charter that is like swiss cheese. It makes sense when we feel the militarized quality of a big airport because big airports are busy, with loads of people and objects passing through and then escaping for faraway places. And there's money involved - airplanes are expensive to replace. And passengers riding on commercial airlines hold their breath, suspend their disbelief, and put their trust in the airline for those few hours. All good reasons for carving out a militarized zone - maybe - but these same attributes also happen in many other places: other transportation hubs, downtown shopping areas and financial districts. And the impetus/pretext for a militarized zone could also unfold over time: a natural disaster, a visiting dignitary or president staying at a big hotel or attending an event at a giant convention complex. One of the points that Paul Jay made in writing and doing videos on the G20 meeting is that it's actually at the time when they are under pressure that it is the most important for rights to be retained. Otherwise you're always going to be able to find some reason to suspend, suspend, suspend.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bedbug -sniffing Dogs

From the Atlantic:

No grand impacts from this particular story but... I am documenting *all* false positive stories I get my mitts on, not just the really salient ones. The issue here is money and reputation. It will hurt the dogs' reputation if they don't have a good rate of having been right. So this phenomenon has some salience because it suggests that calm, Occam's Razor and a shrug about power structures is sufficient - if they do a bad job, their reputation goes in the toilet. "What are you worried about - the proof will be in the pudding. If a police chief turns out to have been wrong one too many times, the guy is sacked."

My complaint is that it makes those *first few* incidents into canaries in a coalmine. Or to repeat another phrase I have repeated in a few different posts, "some kid always has to get killed at the crosswalk to get the new traffic light put in." In the case of this news story, let's say for argument's sake that authorities could compel a hotel to do expensive fumigations because the dog sniffed bedbugs. It turns out the dog was wrong, and by that time, the hotel has already spent money. So the remedy is that the reputation of the dogs suffers. And this is better than nothing, but it sucks for the first few examples who were instrumental in bringing that problem to light. And if the domain you're talking about is something irretrievable - money can be refunded, but let's say we're talking about the death penalty based on DNA evidence which is later found to be wrong - it is a problem because you aren't going to be able to bring that person back. Even if the reputation of DNA evidence duly suffers, the actually-not-guilty person has already been executed.

To add one final thing to this messy post, I want to mention the idea of "it could be you." Someone who tries to point out the fallibility in a given system can use the argument, "it could be you, you might feel differently if it were you or someone you know." The vast middle class comes back with Occam's Razor.

"It's just not going to be."

"Why not?"

"It's just not going to."

So we are more comfortable and less concerned with "canary in a coalmine" situations where something can be remedied gradually, when it is at someone else's expense. Possibly race and economics comes into it, because if the person saying "you're being an alarmist," is well off and/or not part of an ethnic group that tends to be poorly treated, they are subtly taking advantage of that, even though they might decry it out loud.

So to be more specific, a poor black man is a suspect for murder. Through DNA evidence, he is found guilty, gets the death penalty and is executed. He's later exonerated. People start to have second thoughts about DNA evidence. But if someone was trying to drum up more attention for the flaws in the DNA-evidence process before the wrongful execution happened, they wouldn't have gotten very far. And one of the reasons they wouldn't have gotten very far is that "it could be anyone, even you!" arguments wouldn't have caught fire because the center can fire back, "it won't be me so it's not my problem." Ultimately it seems to me like a subtle exercise of might makes right.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Common Carriers

I got this metaphorical story from my friend Orion. Suppose there is a cadre of mob criminals. They want to communicate about their plans for a new heist, and do it securely. So they all pile into two cars and set off for a deserted highway. It's reckless, but they start communicating about their next job by flashing morse code with their headlights. Everybody signals "OK, we got it!" at the end and this is the only conference they ever have about what turns out to be a bungled heist where a bystander is killed.

If these mafia members can be caught and it can be shown that they had this morse-code conference, can the Transportation Agency responsible for the highways be held liable?

This story is on my themes, somehow. I'm not going to take too much time mulling over right now how, but I wanted to get it down before I forget.