Friday, January 07, 2005

What Is Security?

As a computer geek one of my sub-specialities is data security. The need for security of data in computer information systems stems from the real or perceived value of that data to its owner. It's fairly hard in reality to place a dollar value on data, though companies attempt it. For example, if the formula for Coke Classic fell into the hands of nefarious evil-doers who then started making a taste-alike product, would it hurt Coke's business? The data security answer would be "absolutely", while in reality who knows? Given that there are numerous similar products on the market, surely a large part of Coke's success is marketing. For data to have a value that's easily assigned in terms of a company's sales, it would have to describe a formula or process to make something that's valuable in the marketplace, otherwise unreproduceable, and unprotected by any legal means.

Placing dollar values on security is pretty hard in the more general sense too. Because of recent history, the focus of spending on security at the moment is primarily on national defense, by which i mean pursuing real or perceived terrorist threats. I don't dispute the value of that type of security, but i wonder if the almost exclusive emphasis on it detracts from real security. For instance, regardless of what means are used i would require that the result of security measures be, in this order, 1) the existence of my family, 2) the health and happiness of my family, 3) the existence and effectiveness of the social infrastructure (schools, roads, police, courts, commerce), 4) the integrity and safety of the nation. I recognize that these are not necessarily interdependent, that the safety of the nation might be a prerequisite for the safety of my local social institutions. But I'm not convinced that the current national security priorities are compatible with my own, since they're stacked toward fighting an essentially foreign war in order to cripple what are deemed to be terrorist organizations.

Again, it's hard to find a formula that determines where to place the security emphasis. I vaguely recall reading somebody who advocated pairing the likelihood of an event with the potential harm of that event to determine its criticality. For example, there's a fairly low likelihood of an individual being killed by a nuclear explosion in the United States (if you factor in the geographical size of the country); but the potential harm is vast, and probably calculable in a very rough way. On the other hand, the probability of an individual being harmed or killed in an automobile accident is significantly higher, but the effect is generally limited to a small number of people. So would the data support the War on Terror or the War on Idiot Drivers?

My opinion is the things that are worthwhile in terms of security are 1) better control of the immigration and visa process, 2) better safety measures for automobiles and highways, 3) better control of air and water quality, 4) R+D on national defense that emphasizes intelligence and troop preparation, and 5) investment in education and business innovation. In my opinion, the things that are not cost effective include 1) the war in Iraq, 2) the war on drugs, 3) the erosion of civil liberties in the name of information gathering, and 4) missile defense.

Probably the areas in which i differ the most from most liberals is in the realms of gun control and intelligence gathering. As for guns, i think that cat is already out of the bag. I'd probably support background checks or safety training (it seems like making a gun as hard to get as a driver's license is fairly reasonable); but outright bans on guns are pointless. Relatively few of the bad guys are buying their weapons at the WalMart as it is. Also, even though i know it's a contentious point, i don't think we ought to overanalyze the second amendment. I'm willing to concede that the 2nd amendment insures the right to own and bear arms, if gun proponents are willing to admit that the other amendments insure me the right to keep the government out of my private matters and evangelical Christianity out of our courtrooms. In any case, i don't think better gun control is going to address my stated security priorities in a substantial way.

Intelligence gathering is a tough one. I'm convinced that the current approach of trying to define categories of individuals to whom civil liberties don't apply (e.g., the "enemy combatants" sophistry); or giving police agencies broader latitude to circumvent privacy protections is misguided. Ironically, i'd use the same arguments that gun advocates use. Something like "when privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy". I'm fairly convinced that available encryption methods would make it possible for any careful individual to communicate securely if he or she wanted to. So the government would need measures such as key escrow to defeat this security. It might be possible for the government to mandate that some communications channels (the Internet, telephone land-lines, digital mobile communications) adhere to standards that make it easier for them to eavesdrop, but how would they extend it to radio or the postal system?

On the other hand, i have less issue with systems that monitor public records and attempt to make inferences (i.e., data mining). I don't have much issue with face recognition software, or even expert systems that attempt to identify individuals as potential security threats. If, and it's a crucial if, these things are backed by rigorous due process they seem to me like legitimate law enforcement and defense techniques. I believe that they could potentially serve the purpose of helping to identify the sort of anomalous behavior that the 9/11 terrorist exhibited, but which was only apparent after the fact. These systems will make mistakes, innocent people will be accused. But that's a problem with any police organization, automated or not. In principle, that's why we have due process in the first place.

I found the following passage recently, ironically on a gun advocacy web site:
Dr. Hatsumi was once asked to describe the essence of Ninpo [a martial art] and he replied that it was sitting on the porch of one's home and watching one's grandchildren play in the yard. That statement certainly doesn't seem to describe an art that is commonly portrayed as an assassin's art or at minimum a warrior tradition. Yet, it is the perfect statement to embody this and most martial arts. It is also the essence of why I am an owner of firearms. In Ninpo, as in Buddhism, one begins to change the world by first changing oneself. When I recognize the cause of suffering in my life and I follow the way to eliminate that suffering, I have taken the first step. However, I quickly discover that in order for me to be happy, I must help create a safe and happy environment for my wife and family. Then, I discover that in order for my family to be safe and happy I must work to ensure that my neighborhood is safe and happy. But in order to ensure that my neighborhood is safe and happy, I must work to ensure that my town is safe. This process of reasoning continues until I realize that the entire universe is connected and that my safety and happiness is inextricably intertwined with that of the other residents of the universe. Therefore, if I want to be able to peacefully sit on my porch and watch my grandchildren play I must ensure a safe world in which that may occur.
The logic of this seems irrefutable to me, though i'm not sure that i would thus conclude that gun ownership is essential. It is consistent with my own martial arts training though. We practice what we call "positioning". This is basically awareness of your surroundings. The need to use self defense techniques means that you have already failed at positioning. The only time at which you should use self defense, no matter how expert you are, is when you're in over your head. If you know that you will defeat your opponent easily, you're not a warrior, you're a bully.

So what is security? I'm not certain yet, and i'm not certain that it's possible to precisely define. But i know i'll have experienced it if i can sit on my porch and watch my grandchildren play in the yard.

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