Prosecutors, Police Get Medieval on Privacy and Progress

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Ashley Carman of The Verge reports on the opening of a new front in American politicians’ war on personal privacy and technological progress: Legislators in California and New York have introduced bills  requiring the makers of smart phones sold in their states to intentionally compromise those phones with “back doors” for law enforcement.

Those two states are the test markets for a national — even global — effort backed by the National District Attorneys Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The ultimate goal of that effort is a repeal of the last 600 years of human history, at least where personal privacy and technological progress are concerned.

There are so many things wrong with the proposal that I simply can’t cover them in detail here. The short version:

First, “back doors” in high-tech products cannot be created in a way that only allow law enforcement to access information on the basis of lawful warrants citing probable cause. Any device so compromised is inherently vulnerable not just to state actors (who can’t be trusted to act lawfully) but to run of the mill criminals — hackers, identity thieves and so on.

Secondly, the strong encryption genie is out of the bottle and has been for decades. If Californians and New Yorkers can’t buy uncompromised phones in California and New York, they’ll buy those phones elsewhere. If such phones aren’t legally available  anywhere, those of us who value our privacy will simply procure add-on software or hardware that encrypts our data before it ever enters the compromised systems.

Finally, and most importantly, understand that the backers of this outrageous legislation are NOT your friends. Their goal is not to protect your life, liberty or property. Their goal is to maintain and expand their power over you. And this makes them and their ideas very, very dangerous.

The only way to stop the use of encryption on computers and cell phones is to stop the use of computers and cell phones. If you don’t think these megalomaniacs are willing to do that, you aren’t paying attention. They’ve done it before, not just in openly authoritarian polities like Egypt, but right here in the US, albeit temporarily and in a very localized manner. That’s a matter of scale, not of principle.

As I wrote five years years ago when then US Senator Joe Lieberman proposed an “Internet kill switch” for “national security” purposes, “if the price of keeping Joe Lieberman in power is you staring over a plow at the a** end of a mule all day and lighting your home with candles or kerosene at night before collapsing on a bed of filthy straw, that’s a price Joe Lieberman is more than willing to have you pay.”

Some of the faces have changed, but the stakes haven’t. You can have your freedom, your privacy and the benefits of modern technology, or those who would rule you can have their “back doors.” But it’s one or the other. The two sets of values cannot co-exist.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


The Strange Establishment Backlash Against Bernie Sanders

English: 2009 Black Tie Dinner Distribution - ...
English: 2009 Black Tie Dinner Distribution – Human Rights Campaign Foundation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights [Campaign], in Planned Parenthood,” Democratic presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on January 19.  “But you know what, Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time and some of these groups are part of the establishment.”

The comment in reply to Maddow’s query as to his feelings about those groups endorsing Clinton’s campaign rather than his own, produced an immediate and bizarre backlash from both Clinton and the groups in question. “Really Senator Sanders?” tweeted Clinton. “How can you say that groups like @PPact and @HRC are part of the ‘establishment’ you’re taking on?”

Well, let us count the ways.

Planned Parenthood is a “non-profit” business with a history going back nearly a century, which has for decades kept its lips firmly latched on the US government’s corporate welfare teat to the tune of half a billion dollars a year. It keeps that money flowing with intensive, ongoing lobbying and litigation to ensure that a plurality of American politicians support its goals and guarantee its revenues. It’s as much a part of the American political establishment as any investment bank or old-money K Street lobbying shop.

The Human Rights Campaign is a more interesting case — and more obviously “establishment” than even Planned Parenthood. It’s younger (founded in 1980) and poorer (only about $40 million in annual revenues), but historically, it’s been purely a partisan establishment political project. HRC’s job, for 30-odd years, was to cajole LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) voters into pulling the lever for Democrats instead of for Libertarians, Greens and other political candidates who actually supported LGBT rights. And it did a pretty good job as PR flack. The Democrats nearly monopolized the LGBT vote without ever having to actually earn that vote.

Here’s a good indicator of just how “establishment” the Human Rights Campaign is:  Bernie Sanders publicly supported gay rights at least as early as 1983. Hillary Clinton finally stopped publicly opposing same-sex marriage three years ago, once the end of the fight was clearly in view. HRC isn’t supporting its better ally in its stated cause.  It’s supporting the Democrat it expects to win — the “establishment” Democrat — because only winners get to dispense the favors HRC feels it has earned.

The notion that Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are anything but “establishment” through and through doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Legislation: The Moral of the Story

The controversial Ten Commandments display at ...
The controversial Ten Commandments display at the Texas State Capitol. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It feels to me (and Google seems to bear the feeling out) as if not a minute goes by without someone asserting “you can’t (or shouldn’t) legislate morality” and someone else retorting “oh yes you can (and should)!” This is a pet peeve of mine. Please bear with me as I explain why the peeve is important and why it  underlies nearly the entirety of political discourse.

What does it mean to “legislate morality?” Well, let’s break the expression down.

“Legislation” refers to passage of rules or laws by political bodies. These rules are generally understood to apply to everyone within a legislature’s claimed jurisdiction.

“Morality,” per Webster’s, is “the quality of an action which renders it good; the conformity of an act to the accepted standard of right.” Its opposite, “immorality,” would then be that which is bad, or which violates the accepted standard of right.

There are two kinds of legislation: The kind which prohibits some activity, and the kind which compels some activity.

A law forbidding  use of heroin is a moral claim — the claim that heroin use is WRONG.

A law compelling payment of taxes is also a moral claim — the claim that supporting the state financially, whether you feel like doing so or not, is RIGHT.

What looks like a third kind of law really isn’t. Laws that “allow” some activity while subjecting that activity to various regulations are just complex mixtures of the aforementioned prohibitions and compulsions.

There’s a moral claim at the bottom of every law. If you are legislating, you are legislating morality. Every time. No exceptions.

The real question that all this “can’t/can legislate morality” nonsense obscures is “WHOSE morality?” When we reach that question, things tend to break down into arguments over “America as a Christian nation” versus “secular humanism for the win” and so on.

The only political idea offering a plausible resolution to these arguments for a nation of 300 million plus individuals of varying moral persuasions is libertarianism.

That resolution is, oddly, one which can only be characterized with a phrase that most people denounce when it’s applied to politics: “The lowest common denominator.”

Libertarians believe that legislation should only prohibit, not compel, and that the only thing it should prohibit is the initiation of force. So long as you’re not  killing, raping, assaulting or stealing from others, you should be left free to practice whatever moral code appeals to you — and to gain adoption of that moral code by others through persuasion rather than through force.

For a country torn by moral and political conflict, as ours is, libertarianism is the only political idea that lets us answer “yes” to the question “can we all get along?”

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.