Humanity Top-Trumps

We seem to be no closer to the enlightened day foretold by noted philosopher Theodor Geisel in his seminal work “The Star Bellied Sneetches”.

A couple of things this week gave me pause when trying to decide who was actually in the wrong and who was in the right.

In the first, a child and family were removed from a flight because of the child’s allergy to dogs, of which there was one on the flight. The question here is, is a child’s allergy, traditionally enough to have a school ban an item, less important than another person’s right to have an emotional support animal?

The second involves a woman being moved on a flight because her presence was a problem to the orthodox Jew sitting next to her. Are religious rights more or less important than women’s rights?

Lastly, although the incident did not happen this week, it’s cropped up a lot over various news feeds this week, is an immuno-compromised child’s right to attend school more or less important than a parent’s right to choose not to vaccinate a child? A pertinent addendum here being that the school has a peanut butter ban in effect to protect allergic children.

These stories made me think that we really need to develop some sort of ranking system for whose rights supersede whose, a sort of human rights Top-Trumps if you will. With this in place issues could be quickly and efficiently resolved.



What Ben Franklin Didn’t Say About Encryption


“Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.”

-Benjamin Frankin on phone encryption

At least that’s the popular misquote used when discussing how much “The State” should be allowed to know about what we citizens are up to.

The actual quote (which is a version of a different piece of his own writing) is:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

The presence of the qualifiers little and temporary are pretty important omissions. Crucially, these words  leave room for sacrificing liberty for lasting security and/or for big change while at the same time requiring us to identify essential liberties.

The current lightning rod for this issue is the court ordering of Apple to “unlock” the San Bernadino jihadists’ phones.  Apple, although it could equally have been Google or any other company, is reluctant to comply even going so far as to draft an open letter about the situation.

A common refrain for supporting the rights of law enforcement to look at phone details is that it shouldn’t be a problem, unless you have something to hide. I’m inclined to agree with the position, in principle. The problem is deciding whether something is empirically bad or just an opinion of those doing the looking. Where I live it’s not a big problem, but under other regimes it certainly would be.

A second concern is that a backdoor to encryption could also be used by hackers. I know these nefarious characters are one of the favourite bogeymen for those who want to promote encryption, but, no matter what way you dress it up, a security backdoor does make something less secure.

So, back to the quote. Does the ability to get into jihadists’ phones and maybe save lives from other terror attacks qualify as a lot of permanent safety and is having safe information on your phone an essential liberty?

The decision’s about to be made one way or another. Worryingly, it won’t be made by people as free to make purely reasoned proclamations as Ben Franklin.

UPDATE: Google is supporting Apple’s stance according to CEO Sundar Pichai’s twitter.