Legal Innovation: Warrant Canaries

I recently came across a fascinating legal concept called warrant canaries. I’m going to cover the idea briefly, but if you want to know more about them in detail, I highly recommend this Warrant Canary FAQ at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The context is that many online services based in the United States can be compelled by the FBI to give whatever information they have to law enforcement through National Security Letters. Those documents often gag the companies from informing their customers they are being spied on, even if the service is being provided specifically so that users can get encrypted, private communication. It’s hard to pin down the exact constitutionality of NSLs. They were ruled unconstitutional in 2013, but it looks like the case was remanded in 2015 after the passage of the USA Freedom Act. Given the government’s continued efforts to obtain information regardless of constitutionality and limitations placed on them by Congress, it would be nice if we had some way to communicate if a service was under duress from the government.

The usefulness of warrant canaries (I’ll get to what they are in a moment) is based on two legal concepts: (1) it’s not illegal to inform anyone of a warrant you haven’t been served, and (2) the state cannot compel false speech.

The first statement is common sense, since you can’t be curtailed from simply stating something hasn’t happened yet.  The second is a bit more subtle; a stronger statement is that the state cannot compel speech at all, but that’s not always true. The state can sometimes compel commercial speech to inform consumers of information so they can make accurate decisions. The EFF elaborates that “…the cases on compelled speech have tended to rely on truth as a minimum requirement”.

This is essential because it allows companies with encryption products to convey highly relevant information to their customers. Companies can publicly post a message indicating they have not received a warrant because of the first legal concept, and they can immediately take down their public message when they do receive a warrant because the state cannot compel false speech.

To ensure the authenticity of the message stating that the given company has not been subject to a NSL, many go an extra step and sign their messages with a PGP key (example here).

Of course, a foolproof way to ensure no data is lost is to simply make all data encrypted, like Apple has with the iPhone, ProtonMail does for email, and everyone who has ever sent encrypted emails has been doing since the 90s. But I still like this idea, because individuals who run encryption services should not be forced to be government puppets, like the FBI hoped to do to Ledar Levison.

The weakness is that we don’t know what we don’t know, so it’s possible the government already has a new Secret National Security Letter which it uses to compel companies to lie under some made up interpretation of an arcane piece of legislation. The only real security is end-to-end encrypted communication or being Hillary Clinton.

 

Links 2016-03-24

Scott Alexander has a new post on happiness and economic growth. There must be a name for this paradox, because it’s blindingly obvious if you think about it: Right now, compare your life to the life of 100 years ago, given your current standing in society. Your life right now is way better, you have time to spend on internet learning and debating about ideas in ways you couldn’t dream of 100 years ago. You have better food choices, longer life expectancy, better pop culture, more stimulating interests, far easier communication with distant relatives, and so on. And yet, the exact same thing will be said about our lives compared to the lives of those who live 100 years in the future. Sure, those lives will be better, but I don’t know how much that bothers us today unless we really think about it. Most people are pretty excited to live today at the frontier of human knowledge, and we don’t see it as a loss that we don’t have cheap self-driving cars and instant delivery groceries for low cost.

But yet, when you do think about it, we hate sitting in traffic or having to go to the store to pick something up, and we wish we had technologies that could get rid of those inconveniences. Yet, I bet people in the future will just have other errands they hate doing just like we hate sitting in traffic. But they will be inconveniences for future people who are tolerating them so that they can do even more awesome things that we can’t imagine, just like people 100 years didn’t sit in traffic because they didn’t own cars at all.

It’s very confusing. On a personal scale, obviously it would be ridiculous to complain about your current standing, because future technologies haven’t been invented yet. So of course everyone is pretty satisfied with what technology level they live in. Yet, our lives are obviously better for having these technologies. How do we reconcile this?

In the last month, I’ve often thought that the closest president we’ve had to Donald Trump is Andrew Jackson; Trump is a loud-mouthed, populist who falls outside of the mainstream party system, yet has significant support from non-elites and were despised by the elites themselves.  This is also the perfect description for Andrew Jackson, who was so successful in this movement, he founded the Democratic Party. David Friedman comes to the same conclusion via a different route.

That last link caused me to run into a real problem with Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson grammatically. One subject is dead and one is alive, so what is the proper verb tense to use? Stack Exchange suggested this, which is honestly kind of lame.

Scott Sumner discusses socialism and France. He makes a short argument that France sounds like a pretty good model country for modern socialism: high amount of skilled civil servants, broad support for socialist policies, a willing government to implement them, and a modern, developed economy.  Yet, Bernie Sanders supporters often reach for the Nordic countries rather than France as the big-welfare state (“socialist”) ideal.  Why is French socialist policy somewhat of a political flop, while Nordic countries are idealized? And would a Bernie-America look like Denmark or maybe better, or perhaps more like France, or even worse? Given the size and diversity of America’s population and economy, France seems closer than Denmark, although both are closer to each other than the US. The only socialistic countries of comparable size seem to be the China and the Soviet Union which have forms of socialism even Bernie Sanders would abhor. Mostly.

Do you have no friends? Never fear, it’s because really, really smart people are better off with few friends.

Bryan Caplan’s model of the Right and Left, and how it’s oddly doing well this election cycle.

Overcoming Bias discusses the cost and benefits of voting. How much would you pay to have your vote count more? His conclusion is that we don’t vote to change the outcome of the election.

Surprise! NSA data will soon be used for routine policing! Coverage from the New York Times, and the Massachusetts ACLU as well.

Bryan Caplan also has a good discussion of libertarian critiques of welfare.  Matt Zwolinski has a good counter post. I like the idea of bleeding heart libertarianism, or market liberalism or whatever, so I think Caplan’s critiques are pointed at exactly what I believe, which is excellent! You always want to have your beliefs critiqued by smart people. I think Caplan is right on many of his points, but I feel like my views are more politically practical. Voters obviously want some form of welfare for the poor, and at least that part could be done more efficiently with my ideas.

This is a good write up on the decentralized crypto-currency-ish entity Ethereum; Reason also did a recent video on it.   Very soon I’ll be able to explain to people what it actually does. Right after I’ve figured out how to install it.  If you want to learn about it without me, here is Ethereum’s website.

Fact checking Trump on trade. Why do we talk about trade deficits? I have no idea why they matter.  Is it a problem if I buy a phone from Apple and I live in New York instead of California? Is there now a trade deficit between New York and California since I sent money out of my local community? No, nobody cares. And for the US, it’s even less relevant, since those dollars that US citizens spent have to come back to the US to be redeemed for goods and services. It would be like if I paid for my iPhone in New York dollars that had to come back to New York. I’m a free trade proponent, but I’m not deaf to some concerns people might have about trade, but this is one of the worst anti-free trade arguments you could make.

Follow-up: Not that wrong about Obamacare

Anytime we see something that challenges our worldview, it’s important to acknowledge it, and investigate whether our model of the world is incorrect, or at least to acknowledge our mistake. Otherwise, we cease to be engaging in discussion and building on knowledge. About a year ago, Josh, one of the former authors on this blog, wrote an excellent piece about how his predictions of massive failure for Obamacare did not seem to be coming true:

I Was Wrong About Obamacare

But now, a year further along, it seems the healthcare system isn’t doing so hot. The Wall Street Journal wrote in October:

Among this population of the uninsured, HHS reports that half are between the ages of 18 and 34 and nearly two-thirds are in excellent or very good health. The exchanges won’t survive actuarially unless they attract this prime demographic: ObamaCare’s individual mandate penalty and social-justice redistribution are supposed to force these low-cost consumers to buy overpriced policies to cross-subsidize everybody else. No wonder HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said meeting even the downgraded target is “probably pretty challenging.”

Late in December, Reason reported:

United announced during an investor briefing Thursday that it was expecting a whopping $425 million hit on its earnings this year, primarily due to mounting losses on its Obamacare exchange business. “We cannot sustain these losses,” United CEO Stephen Hensley declared.

And also in January:

Aetna, for example, has already dropped out of the exchange market in two states. A dozen of the 23 non-profit co-op plans backed by the law have already closed up shop, causing about 600,000 people to lose health plans, and a Politico analysis indicates that most of the remaining co-op plans are in trouble. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas and North Carolina both lost a sizable chunk of money on its exchange business during the program’s first year. The financial outlook for a number of insurers participating in Obamacare, in other words, doesn’t look good. And there are few signs that it is set to improve in the near future.

February:

Yet, the mandates aren’t working as planned. My colleague Brian Blase recently summed up the difference between the projected numbers of people who were expected to enroll in the ACA during this third open enrollment and the people who actually did. He notes a high estimate of 12.7 million people signing up for an exchange plan. But Blase actually thinks there will only be an average of 11 million enrollees this year. That’s 16 million fewer than the Rand Corporation predicted, 11.8 million fewer than the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predicted, 12.1 million fewer than the Urban Institute predicted and 10 million fewer than the Congressional Budget Office projected.

It seems more likely than not that there will need to be some sort of change to the health system. Perhaps Josh’s predictions were too dire, but overall, I would retitle his post “I was still mostly right about Obamacare”.

 

Banning Unbreakable Smartphone Encryption is Stupid

At least two states, New York and California, have introduced legislation that would ban smartphones sold in those states if those smartphones could not be searched under request from law enforcement.  This would likely mean no phones would be sold with unbreakable encryption, although I suppose Apple or Samsung could manufacture two types of phones and then just sell all the encrypted ones from New Hampshire or something. These bills are still somewhat controversial, and as it has gotten press coverage, there has been a House bill introduced that would prevent state legislation like those bills introduced in New York and California. Continue reading Banning Unbreakable Smartphone Encryption is Stupid

Voting Rights Schmoting Rights

I.

“If you don’t feel like voting, don’t bother. It won’t matter. The statistical odds of your vote making any difference at all are infinitesimal.” These are the words of Megan McArdle in a sad, but amusing, piece telling you not to vote. And she’s right: your vote, at least in federal elections, is pretty worthless. Even in smaller House elections, over 80% of incumbents win.

But she’s not the only person that’s been talking about voting recently. The Left has been quite upset over new voter ID laws being implemented around the country. John Oliver even did a long segment on it.

I like John Oliver as a political commentator (and in Community). His sharp wit combines biting commentary with excellent humor, and the format of his show allows a deep dive on interesting issues. I try to watch as many of those segments as possible (they are available for free on YouTube) despite the vast differences in the way he and I view the world.  Oliver’s analysis provides great starting points for discussion, and he helps me understand many critiques of issues that I would never have thought of.

While I don’t really disagree with him on the basic issue of voter ID laws, I feel like he’s missed the more profound problem about American democracy: voting is just a gimmick.

How can this be? Voting is a fundamental right!  America was founded as a grand experiment in democracy! Yes, voting is very important to Americans, but why?  In fact, what is a voting right? Continue reading Voting Rights Schmoting Rights

Links 20160224

Marginal Revolution has a post about an event that occurred on Shark Tank. The pitch on the show was an alternative to bee honey, made from apples. Part of the pitch was that this would save the bee population by reducing the industrial demand for it (yes, really). Spoiler from Professor Tabarrok: “Reducing the demand for honey, reduces the demand for bees”.

Politico has a nice article about the potential of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, even if he doesn’t win a majority of delegates. The way the Democrats set things up, he will be in an excellent position to make demands on the party platform, possibly reshaping the Democrats’ economic policy for many years to come.

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that head-to-head, Sanders beats Trump by 10 points in a national survey (he does better than Clinton against Trump). Things could change of course, but it seems that Trump really isn’t who I should be worried about becoming president right now, as he’s still not likely to win the Republican nomination, and it seems the Democrats poll well against him.

SCOTUSblog has a nice write up on the next court nomination fight, now that Scalia is gone, what factors will be in play, and how can the Obama administration find a nominee with a spotless record that fires up the base and ensures a left-of-center court for a long time. I doubt they nominate a classical liberal.

Tyler Cowen writes about the benefits market monetary policy can bring, as well as the shortfalls of its approach when critiquing Fed policy.

Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a public letter to Apple customers detailing a demand made by the FBI. Law enforcement wants the company to create a new version of their operating system which they could then install on a criminal’s seized phone. The new OS would have a backdoor allowing the FBI to more quickly access it.  I liked Apple just fine as a company, but this is pretty awesome. This week, it turns out the FBI was lying about this being a one-time request as the DoJ is already pursuing orders to force Apple to unlock about a dozen other phones, according to anonymous sources.

Nostalgia Critic on Channel Awesome on YouTube has a great video detailing the absolutely horrible copyright abuse rampant on YouTube.   Claimants have no repercussions for false claims, even on self-evident fair use cases because YouTube’s system is entirely automated with no oversight.  Copyright battles are not something of the past, there are still huge problems today.

An NBER study from last year found government subsidies more than account for increases in tuition. H/t Slate Star Codex.

The German government gives us another example of how you can’t have government surveillance without fundamentally breaking security. Hacker News discussion.

Second link from Alex Tabarrok, this time on drug prices and the FDA. Apparently the US has the lowest generic drug prices of any developed nation. I feel like we should switch to a prize system where drug companies are awarded $X million for successfully passing approval, and then that drug is immediately released with no patent into the market. X could be set based on the amount of patients in the previous 5 years who could have used the drug.

People like to talk about the “Uber” of some industry, trying to say a company is disrupting their space like Uber did to taxis (also in the interest of fighting monopolies, Lyft is great too).   How about Uber for welfare? The left often opposes “workfare”, or ways which incentivize welfare recipients to work, since finding jobs for everyone isn’t practical “…but today the gig economy offers the solution: It can easily and quickly put millions of people back to work, allowing almost anyone to find a job with hours that are flexible with virtual locations anywhere.”  There’s also some data that working is a really good on a cultural level, teaching discipline and responsibility. This sort of goes against my attraction to a basic income, but could go hand in hand: you get a basic income allowance if you can prove you engaged in the gig economy recently. Really cool idea.

From EconLog, some praise for the Free State Project. Apparently they’ve already got over a dozen people elected to the state legislature? Tried to find somewhere else this is being tracked, but I didn’t see anything. If you have info on this, tweet at me.

Also from EconLog, Bryan Caplan finished his summarized his extended discussion of ancestry and long run growth literature.  In sum, we can’t say that people with more advanced culture thousands of years ago had that much better outcomes today. It’s likely other institutional decisions are more important (like having stable free markets).

Links 20160216

In my previous blog, I used to compile lists of interesting links. I’ll start doing that here on an irregular basis.

Scott Alexander has a new post in the “Slate Star Codex critiques social justice” series. It discusses a study which looked at the effects of coder gender on Github pull request approval.  It looks like the study had fairly neutral results but was widely reported by the scientific press as proving sexism in tech.  As someone who works in the tech industry, all I learned was that I need to contribute more to open source projects.  If you want to get fully paranoid about social justice, read Scott’s long comment on the social justice movement on the same post (reposted to reddit).

Justice Scalia passed away this weekend. He was a big deal, whether people liked him or not, and now there’s a big political fight on whether the Republican Senate will allow Obama to appoint a nominee. I’m pretty certain (90%) that Obama will nominate someone, even if congressional Republicans say they don’t want to confirm anyone. I have no idea what the chances are of a person being confirmed. Michael Cannon at Cato says the Senate has the power to deny a nomination until next year. I bet a lot of progressives would be horrified and yell about how Obama won the election in 2012, but I think the claim is pretty solid; Congress is supposed to be the most powerful branch after all. Senators were all elected as well, and court appointees are required to have input from both the President and Senate.

It’s also interesting because I’ve been recently watching Crash Course: U.S. Government and Politics.  The episode on separation of powers is relevant to our Scalia discussion.

Robin Hanson on “Why I Lean Libertarian”.  His reasoning is pretty close to mine.

Amusing post on Status 451: San Francisco has a Shameful Homeless Problem.

From Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog: First-order Libertarianism, Second-Order Public Reason Liberalism. It concerns the question of whether libertarians can allow non-libertarians to set up their own society in a libertarian world.

Great introductory crypto video for public key cryptography.  It discusses the discrete logarithm problem and a Diffie Hellman key exchange. That channel actually has a lot of good videos concerning encryption, although nothing explaining exactly how elliptic curve crypto works.  It’s obviously dark magic.

Scott Sumner mentions a comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky on EconLog.  The post is a fairly complex way of discussing the issues the Fed is facing in trying to jumpstart the economy, but it has a cool reference to Newcomb’s Paradox.

I haven’t mentioned it before on this blog, but I really hate Daylight Savings Time. It’s just so dumb. The Washington Post has an interesting article about a proposal to get rid of all timezones. It would take a huge amount of getting used to, but it seems possible. For example, in China, the entire country is on Beijing time; people out west just wake up and go to sleep later…which I’m sure they were doing already, but now they don’t need to worry about time changes across the country. I like it, but mostly because it would end Daylight Savings Time.

Old post, but interesting: How to Change Public Opinion from the Niskanen Center.

 

 

 

New page in the sidebar

I’ve created a big directory for lots of libertarian resources, websites, and people. The liberty movement is vast, and the directory is incomplete, but for now there is a nice catalog (and almost 4000 words!) of useful resources for anyone vaguely interested in liberty. I hope to continue to build it out over time, and if I had to put a percentage on it, I’d say it was around 33% complete.

The Iowa Caucuses

Republican

Ted Cruz has won Iowa, and it looks like Donald Trump and Marco Rubio are essentially tied for second place. This is good news for Cruz and Rubio, and bad news for Trump. Trump was leading in most of the polls leading up to Iowa, and Trump has marketed his high polling numbers as his claim to relevance.  It seems, at least in Iowa, those polling numbers aren’t as powerful as we thought.  This could be due to the fact that caucuses are bad for Trump’s less educated constituency, or it could be evidence of deeper issues that his constituency will have a hard time showing up in many primaries.  Rand Paul, for what it’s worth, did better than expected, but was a distant 5th.

What does this mean?  Well, as I’ve referenced before, Trump’s lead may be due to disproportionate media coverage. This may fade as there is more focus on Cruz this week. Before tonight, I would have expected Trump to win in New Hampshire, but after tonight, his chances will be a bit slimmer.  Referencing my own predictions, I had Trump at 20% on December 31, and I personally had him at a 30% chance of winning the nomination yesterday. I’d bump him down to at most 25% now, perhaps less.  You have to also figure Rubio’s chances have increased.  Iowa is not somewhere he would be expected to do very well, yet he essentially tied for second. I’m not sure where I’d put Rubio’s chances to be the Republican nominee, but perhaps around 40%. Cruz would probably be around 30%.

How do I feel about this?  Well my preferences are certainly Rubio > Cruz > Trump, so I’m glad Trump lost. There’s the destructive argument that if Trump wins the nomination, it might help third parties out as conservatives voters cast about for another candidate, but even then it would be tough for libertarians to get the 5% needed for public financing or the 15% needed to get into the debates. We’ll have to see how the rest of the primaries go, but I severely hope Trump continues to do poorly.

Democratic

This was very close, and though I still don’t know who officially won, an outcome this close has clear ramifications: Clinton underperformed and Sanders beat expectations.  Sanders was already likely to win New Hampshire, and I’d bet that 538 will give him above an 80% chance to win for the rest of the week.  He is still likely to lose South Carolina.

What does this mean? In December, I gave Hillary a 90% chance to be the Democratic nominee (and Bernie a 10% chance). Before tonight, I think I would have given Bernie a 15-20% chance. After tonight, I think I’d be closer to 20%. Maybe. The problem for Sanders is just that Iowa plays to his strengths; he’ll do well in NH as it also plays to his strengths, but in big states and in more diverse states, I predict he will lose.  This will be one of Bernie’s best showings–and it was essentially a tie.  In all the other areas: funding, endorsements, connections…Hillary wins very handily.

How do I feel about this?  I vaguely prefer Sanders as I know exactly where he stands and what problems I have with him. Moreover, the president controls foreign policy, and I agree with Sanders much more than Clinton on foreign policy. But on his domestic agenda, Bernie has disastrous ideas.  I haven’t focused on them much this cycle because I gave Bernie a very low chance of winning the nomination. It may be worth writing about his policy flaws while people are still interested in discussing his policies.

However, that’s not the whole story, because there is some strategy involved as well. Even though in my last post, isidewith.com recommended Bernie over many other candidates, I’m not nearly so excited about him in my own preferences. I think in reality, I might prefer a Rubio presidency to a Sanders one, although both would be bad. Rubio just seems less extreme, and some of his compromises might be very beneficial, such as on immigration. So here’s the point: if Sanders was the nominee, it would doubtless lead to a GOP victory. This is bad if it’s Trump, but probably good if it’s Rubio (and I’m not sure about Cruz). And so this gives me another incentive to cheer for Sanders, as long as Trump does poorly.

So overall, it’s good Trump missed expectations, good Rubio beat expectations, and probably good Bernie beat expectations as well, but I doubt it’ll last.

And as for my last prediction I’ll bring up; in December, I gave myself a 70% chance I’d vote for the libertarian candidate in November.  An important reason I wouldn’t vote for the libertarian candidate would be if a situation arose where my vote would help decide the outcome of the state I live in, and if I feared for the outcome of the election. Overall, if I’m not voting for the libertarian candidate, bad things are probably happening. Luckily I’d say my prediction remains unchanged as of right now.

 

 

Picture credits: both by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC-BY-SA.

 

Why Vaccines Should be Mandatory and Guns Should be Legal.

communityImmunityGeneric
A summary of herd immunity

The advent of vaccines has led to a dramatic rise in the quality of life in the 20th century. Vaccines have reduced morbidity of diptheria, mumps, polio, and several other diseases by over 99%. In the wake of such overwhelming success, many government policies have moved to make vaccines mandatory, but many libertarians and conservatives have argued that this infringes on the individual right to his or her body. However, I believe that mandatory vaccines may in fact protect rights.

When evaluating individual rights, the quote “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins” is important to consider. Does the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate harm other individuals? In the sense that you enable yourself to transmit disease to unvaccinated individuals, yes. But the act of not vaccinating could easily be considered a conscious choice to be more vulnerable to a disease.

The problem with this logic falls in the concept of “herd immunity”. “Herd immunity” is when such a large percentage of a population is immune to a disease that, even if one susceptible person becomes ill, the disease is unlikely to spread. For example, if 96% of a population has received a measles vaccine, when one individual gets measles, it is unlikely that they confer the disease to the other 4% of people, because the individual is surrounded by so many who are immune (This Romina Libster TED talk explains the concept well).

These individuals aren’t all free riders either. Vaccines are not 100% effective, they cannot be used on people of all ages, and some people are allergic to them. These individuals did not make a conscious choice to be vulnerable to a disease, and by one person choosing not to vaccinate, their “herd immunity” is weakened, significantly increasing their risk of becoming sick.

This has happened several times before, particularly after Andrew Wakefield’s false autism link. In 2014, a measles outbreak occurred in California, only 45% of measles cases occurred in unvaccinated individuals, and among those 12 were in infants too young to be vaccinated.

In defending mandatory vaccines, I have been asked if this same argument could be applied to justify gun control. While the data is conflicting depending how it’s looked at, even if there is a link between gun ownership and gun violence, I don’t believe that the increased risk associated with gun ownership is not grounds considering it a right infringement. With guns, the decision that puts others in harm’s way is not the decision to purchase, but the decision to fire. Furthermore, the decision to fire is already controlled by the illegality of assault, manslaughter, and murder, while the decision not to vaccinate cannot be controlled by anything other than laws mandating it.

Vaccines are one of the most important health advancements of the 20th century, but there are many people that they cannot directly protect. For this reason, it is critical that we prevent healthy adults from making a choice not to vaccinate.