Category Archives: Bootlickers

Muddled Thinking About Universal GPS Tracking

I knew as soon as I read George Washington University Professor Amitai Etzioni’s ridiculous bootlicking CNN op-ed (via a tweet from Radley Balko) that I wanted to write something about it. As often happens, Scott Greenfield beat me to it with a biting response to the legal issues. Still, let me give you a taste:

The Supreme Court is about to hold hearings on whether the police need a warrant to attach a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car and trace its movements while it is in a public space…

The intense debate the case has already elicited among legal scholars, civil rights and libertarian activists, and those particularly concerned with public safety and national security is largely focused on the question: what would the Founding Fathers have said about the case? As I see it, at least equal weight should be accorded to the question: How well are our public authorities doing in their dealings with criminals?

Yes, because police expediency is such an excellant way to decide what our rights should be. In fact, it would really speed things along for our overworked police forces if young black males would be so courteous as to report to the nearest prison when they turn 16. Thank you for your cooperation.

Basically, Etzioni seems willing to give police whatever power they want, as long as they say they need it to protect us. As is usually the case when someone makes this argument, Etzioni seems unwilling to consider that giving police this power might come with a significant cost, that the cost might include significant abuse by the police, and that the giving the police this power might not actually make us safer.

It’s a common enough way of thinking. But what got my attention is Etzioni’s depressing misuse of science, statistics, and logic.

According to national statistics for 2010, less than half (47%) of violent crimes committed in this country are “cleared” (that is, suspects are arrested, charged, and turned over for prosecution) and only one out of five (18%) criminals who commit nonviolent crimes (such as burglary) are caught and tried.

Etzioni offers no context for these numbers. Is a 47% solve rate bad? Or is it an all-time high? Crime rates have been falling since the 1990s and if clearance rates are not unusually low, it’s not clear that we need to grant police such a broad privacy-destroying power.

For obvious reasons there are no such statistics available for terrorists, and the fact that there was no successful attack in the U.S. over the past 10 years tends to make us complacent.

However, if one takes into account that there are many millions of people in the world who hate us and wish us harm (and at least a few right here in the U.S.), we should maintain our vigilance. As one terrorist group once put it, “You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.”

Etzioni likes the statistics when they are in his favor (the low clearance numbers, which imply a large number of criminals roaming around) but when the statistics cut against his argument, as with the low terrorism rate, his response is to downplay the statistics and warn us not to get complacent.

I get the feeling this is due more to intellectual laziness than dishonesty, since Etzioni is actually wrong on the facts when he asserts that there has been “no successful attack in the U.S. over the past 10 years.” Thirteen people died in the shooting attack at Fort Hood in 2009, and twelve more people have been killed in smaller incidents that are considered terrorism. (Five more died from the anthrax mailings after 9/11, but that’s technically just outside the 10-year boundary.) It averages out to about three domestic terrorism deaths per year.

As to what is reasonable, it obviously changes with the circumstances. Given that criminals can use freely all the new technologies — including of course GPS trackers, smartphones and spyware — it seems eminently reasonable that the police should also be able to use some of these, especially in public spaces, in which people have no expectation of privacy (or at least should not have one).

Huh? Criminals also smoke crack. Does that mean we should let the cops smoke crack?

The proper question is not whether police have the same technology the criminals have, it’s whether Police have the right technology to do the job. For example, cops have been arguing for years that they need better weapons because the criminals have better weapons. That makes some sense, because one of the best ways to counter an opponent’s weaponry is with weaponry of your own. But it’s not clear that criminals are doing anything with GPS systems that the police could counter with GPS systems. What’s the logic for demanding GPS parity? This seems like lazy thinking.

Moreover, often some such surveillance is needed before a tip or lead can be developed to the point that it meets the standard of probable cause.

The counter-argument that if the police are allowed to proceed, we shall be all tracked seven days a week, round the clock does not withstand minimal criticism. At most, the GPS data tells us that someone drove a car to certain places. Who lives or works there, what happened, etc. etc., all remain to be investigated.

Again, Etzioni is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. If we don’t need to worry about cops having our GPS data because it’s so useless, then why do cops want it so badly? The obvious answer is that knowing where a person travels in a day or a month tells us a lot about that person. That’s why the cops want it.

And then Etzioni says something really stupid:

If the police put GPS devices in all the cars on the road, or even only in one out of every thousand, cops would be buried under an endless flood of data points — among which suspects would be lost.

Um…no. Not at all. Not even a little bit. This one really bothers me, because I’ve encountered this misconception before and it’s seriously wrong. Etzioni is trying to sound smart by talking about things he doesn’t understand. Modern internet-scale computing routinely solves these kinds of problems.

I got curious and did some of the math. Assuming we can store GPS latitude, longitude, altitude, timestamp, and transmitter ID in five 64-bit fields, and that we want to get a GPS fix every 10 seconds for all 309 million Americans, that works out to about 99,000 gigabytes per day, or 3 million gigabytes per month, equivalent to the data bandwidth used by 11 million iPhones. Using prices from Amazon Web Services, I estimated that it will cost $150,000 per month to transfer the data, and if we to retain the data for a year, that will cost 36.3 million gigabytes, the storage rental will eat another $2 million per month.

Computing cost is harder to estimate because it depends on what sort of data processing we’re planning, but assuming that a large Amazon server instance can process 1000 samples per second, we’ll need 30,900 running server instances, which will cost us $8.9 million per month. Now that’s a heck of a lot of servers, but it’s not unheard of. Large sites like Yahoo and Facebook are probably using that many servers, and Google is widely estimated to operate 900,000 servers.

Retrieving the full year of data for any single person would probably take a minute or two (mostly transfer time) and with that many servers, we could retrieve tens of thousands of records simultaneously. If you want to be able to answer geographic questions  — “Who was within 500 yards of the crime scene on the day in question?” — you’d probably need twice as much storage for the geospatial index. On the other hand, you could also save space by eliminating duplicate GPS data from when people aren’t moving. Call it a wash.

There are lots of other costs, including programming and management, but I think we can safely say that the cost of handing the data would be less than $150 million dollars per year. And if we cut our sample rate from every 10 seconds to every minute, the cost scales down to only $25 million per year. The government could contract this out, and depending how you classified the work, it might be considered a small business.

The thing is, my datacenter calculations are just a diversion, because if Etzioni had given it a little thought, he’d realize we already have a working example. When you call a mobile phone, the cellular network has to know which antenna to use to connect to it, and since the network can’t know in advance when the next call will come, it has to be constantly tracking every phone. So at this very moment our national cellular phone networks are using 250,000 cellular antenna sites to track over 300 million mobile phones in real time. It’s not as accurate as GPS, but it’s just as much data, and it’s fast, cheap, and reliable.

At the same time, the police should be required to file reports after the fact about their use of GPS trackers. If it turns out that they are employed too often or to track people who are, say, political activists, the police should be reprimanded and if they persist, elected officials (say, a city council) should set limits on the use of this and other crime-fighting technologies and punish those who abuse them.

Or, we could set the limits and punish the abusers right now. Keep in mind, the argument isn’t about whether the police should be able to track bad guys with GPS, it’s only about whether they should be able to do so without a signed warrant from a judge.

If the data ran the other way — if most criminals were neutralized and we did not have to be concerned about terrorists — reasonable people who seek to deny the police the use of GPS trackers without probable cause might have a much stronger case.

“If the data ran the other way”? What data is he talking about? There is no data. The only data he presents is the low clearance rate. He offers no evidence that any part of this low clearance rate is due to the inability of police to use GPS trackers without a warrant. He simply takes the police at their word that this is a tool they need.

Personally, I’m against this kind of big-brother system even if it would produce a substantial increase in clearance rates, because I think the government would use it to do more harm than good. But even if you don’t agree with me, don’t you think we should make the police prove they need this power before we give it to them? Make them gather statistics about how many bad guys got away without GPS tracking that would have been caught with it. Make them show us the math. My guess is, they can’t.

The Enemy at Home

James Wolcott reviews galleys of conservative intellectual Dinesh D’Souza’s new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, and it sounds bad. Just the subtitle sounds bad. If it was The Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 then I’d figure it was an attempt to blame 9/11 on Clinton’s foreign policies. That’s not an argument that’s unreasonable on it’s face; it’s debatable.

But to blame 9/11 on the cultural left? The Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacked us because of what? Gay marriage? Raunchy music lyrics? Women without veils?

Tim Noah had a few words to say about this book in Slate a few weeks ago, and I’ve been following Radley Balko’s concerns about it.

Wolcott’s a bit crazy, but I think this part is reasonably coherent:

The theme of the book is quite simple, and vile.

“In this book I make a claim that will seem startling at the outset. The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.”

“I am saying that the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector […], and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world.”

“I realize that this is a strong charge,” D’Souza writes, “one that no one has made before.”

The reason it hasn’t been made before is that it’s a sleazy, shameless, ignorant, ahistorical, tendentious, meretricious lie, one that was waiting for the right brazen liar to come along to promote it, and here he is, and his name is Dinesh D’Souza, who’s fatuous and fuddy-duddyish enough to think that it’s Britney Spears, the rap lyrics of 2 Live Crew, and the buggering photographs of the late Robert Mapplethorpe that have Islam in a tiz. This is someone so out of touch with pop culture that he thinks liberals look down on risque sitcoms like Will & Grace because “their moral depravity is not highbrow enough for their taste.” Does that description fit anyone you know?

Apparently, D’Souza even brings up Piss Christ, which is pretty amazing since (1) that was over a decade-and-a-half ago, (2) South Park has far worse stuff about Jesus, and (3) would Muslim fanatics really get upset over a lack of reverence for Jesus?

(Actually, I’m pretty sure D’Souza’s point about Piss Christ is the lack of respect for religion in general, so point 3 doesn’t really hold, but I’ll take any excuse to link to that South Park video.)

Right after 9/11 a lot of pundits on the right criticized the left (correctly, in many cases) for asking “Why do they hate us?” as if we were to blame for 9/11. I guess some people on the right are starting to agree with them.

Have Faith In Democracy

Today, I have a rant…

It’s about part of a recent editorial called “Playing Politics In Wartime” in The Jewish Press by former New York mayor Ed Koch. Marathon Pundit, a friend of this blog, quotes the following passage with some approval:

Why do so many Americans refuse to face the fact that our country is at war with international terrorism?

The leading terrorist group, Al Qaeda, is fighting us on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Iran and North Korea are threatening nuclear war. And yet many Americans, including some Congressional Democrats, denounce President Bush – and in so doing, weaken our country’s ability to resist Islamic fascism. One Congressional Democrat, John Conyers of Michigan, announced his intention to impeach the president when Republicans lose control of both Houses of Congress.

There is something terribly wrong with people seeking to demean and weaken the president in wartime, thereby strengthening our country’s enemies. As a result of the language and tactics of those opposed to our presence in Iraq, our enemies have been emboldened, believing the American public to be sharply divided on the war, and in fact at war with itself.

To other countries, Americans appear pitted against one another not in an election, but in a verbal bloodbath, convincing the world we are impotent – a paper tiger.

Unlike my esteemed colleague, I find a lot to disagree with in this message.

In order to have a democracy like ours, you have to have elections. In order to have meaningful elections, you have to allow all sides to make an argument to the people, and that argument can include criticism of the other side, even if the other side currently holds the office under contention, even if the criticism is vicious, and even in time of war.

I don’t see how it can be any other way. Being an elected official, even the President, means we get to kick your ass around the schoolyard whenever we feel like it. If that means people are going to “demean and weaken the president in wartime”, so be it. It’s part of the price we pay for having a democracy.

I’m not necessarily saying that the opposition is correct, and I’m certainly not saying the President’s supporters shouldn’t try to counter their arguments.

But that’s not what Ed Koch is doing. He’s not engaging the opposition’s arguments and trying to prove them wrong and the President right. Instead, he’s trying to convince us that the opposition shouldn’t be speaking at all. I suppose that’s pretty smart as a political tactic, but it’s a shitty way to run a democracy.

In fact, I think this shows that Ed Koch is losing his faith in democracy. And he’s not the only one. I’m only half kidding when I say that I think this is a form of Stockholm Syndrome. I know Ed Koch and the others haven’t been kidnapped, but something similar to Stockholm Syndrome occurs in other contexts as well. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Loyalty to a more powerful abuser—in spite of the danger that this loyalty puts the victim in—is common among victims of domestic abuse, battered partners and child abuse… In many instances the victims choose to remain loyal to their abuser, and choose not to leave him or her, even when they are offered a safe placement in foster homes or safe houses. This syndrome was described by psychoanalysts of the object relations theory school…as the phenomenon of psychological identification with the more powerful abuser.

So some people see our enemies commit a stunning atrocity on 9/11 and they become worried that in some way our enemies are better than us, so they want us to be more like our enemies. They see that our enemies are cruel and argue that we should be more cruel. The see that our enemies are suicidal religious fanatics and argue that we should be suicidal religious fanatics. Now Ed Koch thinks that because our enemies don’t understand democracy, we should be less democratic.

I do agree with Ed Koch about one thing. He says this sort of thing makes us look weak and emboldens our enemies which makes international conflicts more difficult. I think he’s probably right about that.

One of the unique weaknesses of a democratic government is that our collective indecision is on view for everyone to see. We are unable to pretend to have more resolve than we actually have. Despots like Kim Jung Il can rattle their sabers and talk tough, and no one is sure if they really mean it. We, on the other hand, make these decisions in public. If we’re collectively uncertain, then our enemies know it. Our indecision shows. We can’t bluff.

The other half of that problem is that foreign despots and terrorists are unfamiliar with the ways of democracies and don’t understand our strengths.

When George Bush was elected in 2000, he came about as close to losing as anyone could and still be called Mr. President. He lost the popular vote, and he won in the electoral college only after a bitter battle in the courts. A lot of people disagreed with the final decision of the Supreme Court, but we all knew that the Justices of the Supreme Court had been appointed by elected Presidents and confirmed by elected Senators, according to a process laid out in a Constitution drafted by elected representatives and approved by other elected representatives.

That’s why, come inauguration day, George Bush became the President of the United States and everyone knew it. Oh, a lot of people didn’t like it, and some of them postured and tried to pretend he wasn’t the President, but everyone knew that by the end of the day, George Bush would be in charge. And because we all believed it would happen that way, it did.

Later, when Congress voted to approve the invasion of Iraq, everyone in this country knew what was going to happen next. We were going to invade Iraq.

We may hate our politicians and suspect them of many crimes, but we believe in the democratic process and the rule of law that goes with it. We act on those beliefs too, and that gives us great power. In fact, I think one of the reasons democracies have such fierce arguments is because they command enormous power, so their decisions are meaningful and important.

So I believe our enemies may well be encouraged by the messiness of our democratic process, but that process and our belief in it is the source of much of our strength. Keeping our democratic tradition gives us the strength to prevail, and that strength is a lot more important than this particular president or this particular war.

I’m not really worried that Ed Koch’s view will catch on. We may have complaints about the way our government is run (see, e.g. the whole rest of my blog) but our faith in our form of government has the strength of stone.

The United States remains one of the few nations to erupt into a civil war and come out the other side still a democracy. In fact, the American Civil War was fought through an election year in the North, and Abraham Lincoln had to run for re-election. In the South, Jefferson Davis also came to power through a democratic process.

That faith in democracy is still alive. On 9/11, on United Flight 93, when some of the passengers realized what was going on, they had to decide what to do about it. You know how they did that? You know what these people did while on an airplane controlled by terrorists?

They voted. Democracy is in our bones.

I’d write some more, but I have a lot to do today. Our condominium association is having its annual board meeting tonight, and my wife and I are up for re-election.

Update: The meeting was a total success: Some other folks stepped up to be on the board.

Cal Thomas’s 24-Hour Torture

My wife and I watch 24 because it’s a decent action/suspense show. This season, however, we’ve noticed that they sure seem to torture a lot of people on the show. And I’m not talking about the bad guys. It’s the good people of CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) who do the torturing, because the bad guys have all the information.

So far they’ve tortured the Secretary of Defense’s estranged son (innocent) [Update: not quite], several terrorists (they knew a lot), a mercenary (who knew a thing or two), a CTU employee (innocent), and Jack Bauer’s girlfriend’s husband (innocent). It’s all a bit disturbing.

Columnist Cal Thomas (whose most recent book is, ahem, The Wit and Wisdom of Cal Thomas) thinks that Jack Bauer and the torture-happy agents of CTU have the right idea:

An ACLU-type lawyer shows up at CTU headquarters (he’s been tipped off by a Marwan minion) with a court order forbidding torture of the suspect. Jack Bauer concocts a plan and gets the man released. When the lawyer leaves, Bauer grabs the suspect outside CTU and tortures him until he discloses the location of Marwan.

Bauer leads a team and is about to arrest Marwan and save the country from a nuclear attack when the acting president orders the Secret Service to arrest Bauer for violating his and the court’s order prohibiting torture. Marwan escapes, and the gripping drama continues.

This was one of the dumbest sequences all season. They’ve been torturing people left and right for relatively unimportant reasons all season and when they’re finally faced with a situation where they literally have to torture someone who knows about nuclear terrorism, the President balks. It’s not the same President as earlier in the season (long story), but somebody should have told him that this wouldn’t even be the first person they’ve tortured today.

But I digress. Cal Thomas explains where this fits in:

All of this is relevant to real life and the scarier drama that is being played out by the United States Army, which last week announced it is preparing to issue a new interrogations manual that specifically bars the use of “harsh” techniques of the type used at Abu Ghraib prison.

Thomas goes on to explain the limits the manual sets on interrogations and gets to:

If the Army nabs a person it suspects of knowing the location of a nuclear bomb that is about to wipe out an American city, would the interrogators and their military and civilian superiors refuse to use torture to squeeze the information out of the captive?

That was precisely the scenario on “24.” Agent Jack Bauer rightly chose the greater good – saving millions of lives – over the niceties imposed by those whose manual seems inspired by “The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette.”

So many of those who want us to torture prisoners for information eventually bring up this scenario—”What if there’s a hidden nuclear bomb and…” —as if it was a big flaw in the whole “torture is bad” position. All they’ve done is proven that there are some hard choices and maybe that the no-torture position isn’t an absolute. My response is that if, God forbid, some terrorists have a nuclear bomb and are threatening to kill millions of innocent people then yes, you can go ahead and torture them if it will help save all those people.

Now that I’ve admitted there are extreme conditions where torture might be permissible, let me ask Cal Thomas a question: There have been several serious incidents of torture at Abu Ghraib. So how many nuclear bombs have we found?

The new Army interrogation manual is about handling real-world prisoners who have information about the locations of ammo dumps, or the latest sacrificial fool to occupy the al-Qa’ida 3rd-in-command position.

Cal Thomas’s article has more problems:

We are dealing with people who have repeatedly demonstrated they have no moral constraints and are willing to perpetrate mass murder while practicing their religiously twisted ideology in pursuit of their objectives.

I’m right there with you, Cal. Go on…

These people are evil to the core.

Amen, brother! Speak the truth!

Are we not paying attention to the beheading videos? The barbarians are at the gate. In fact, they have broken down the gate.

Bring it on home!

This war won’t be won (at least by our side) if we impose on ourselves restrictions that the terrorists do not impose on themselves.

There you go! Cal Thomas wants us to be more like our enemy, the people he’s just finished describing as having no moral constraints and willing to commit mass murders, the people who are evil to the core, the beheaders, and the barbarians.

That’s not a plan for winning a war. That’s a rejection of western civilization.

(Thanks, Hit and Run for the pointer.)