Don’t Let Mass Shooters and the New York Times Destroy Freedom of Speech

“Online communities like 4chan and 8chan have become hotbeds of white nationalist activity,” wrote the editors of the New York Times  on August 4 in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Then: “Law enforcement currently offers few answers as to how to contain these communities.”

Wait, what? Is the Times really implying what it looks like they’re implying? Yes.

“Technology companies have a responsibility to de-platform white nationalist propaganda and communities as they did ISIS propaganda,” the editorial continues. “And if the technology companies refuse to step up, law enforcement has a duty to vigilantly monitor and end the anonymity, via search warrants, of those who openly plot attacks in murky forums.”

Translation: The New York Times has announced its flight from the battlefield of ideas. Instead of countering bad ideas with good ideas, they want Big Tech and Big Government to forcibly suppress the ideas they disagree with.

Not so long ago, the Times‘s editors endorsed a very different view:

“One of the Internet’s great strengths is that a single blogger or a small political group can inexpensively create a Web page that is just as accessible to the world as Microsoft’s home page. But this democratic Internet would be in danger if the companies that deliver Internet service changed the rules so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like.”

Now the Times says providers have a “responsibility” to block access to sites the Times doesn’t like. That’s quite a change. And an ugly one.

There are plenty of good reasons, both moral and practical, to oppose the suppression of white nationalist and other “extremist” web platforms.

Free speech is a core moral value for any society that aspires to freedom of any kind and to any degree. We must — MUST — have the right to form our own opinions, and to express those opinions, no matter how ugly others may find those opinions. Without that freedom, no other freedoms can survive.

As a practical matter, “extremists,” like everyone else, will choose to state, promote, and argue for their beliefs. If they can do so in public, those beliefs can be engaged and argued against. If they can’t do so in public, they’ll do so in private, without anyone to convince them (and those they quietly bring into their circles over time) of the error of their ways. The rest of us won’t have a clue what might be in the offing — until the guns come out, that is.

It’s appalling to see the New York Times endorsing an end to the freedom that undergirds its very existence and the prerogatives of every other newspaper and soapbox speaker in America. The only substantive difference between the editors’ position and that of the El Paso shooter, allegedly one Patrick Crusius, is that the shooter did his own dirty work.

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Facial Recognition Fantasy

Nobody asked but …

There is a television writers’ trick often employed to move a plot along, the fictional use of alleged facial recognition software.

I have no idea how sophisticated FR really is, but I do know that those who propound its magic have no incentive to tell us its limitations.  Just as a car salesman will romance us with purported positives all day long, while neglecting potential flaws, script writers and law enforcement officials have vested interests in our belief in the wonders of science.

The worst part is that if the insiders say some technology works, human nature is such that they are lying.  The technology is likely to be “not ready for prime time.”  If we can’t check their veracity, they can demand our faith.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Photo ID is Obsolete and Unnecessary. Facial Recognition Technology Makes it Dangerous.

In mid-May, San Francisco, California became the first American city to ban use of facial recognition surveillance technology by its police department and other city agencies. That’s a wise and ethical policy, as a July 7 piece at the Washington Post proves.

Citing documents gathered by Georgetown Law researchers, the Post reports that at least two federal agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have — for years — mined state photo ID databases to populate their own facial recognition databases.

To put a finer point on it, those agencies have been conducting warrantless searches, seizing private biometric data on the entire population of the United States, most of whom are neither charged with, nor suspected of committing, a crime.

They’ve conducted these fishing expeditions not just without warrants, but absent even the fig leaf of legislation from Congress or state legislatures to lend supposed legitimacy to the programs.

The Post story, intentionally or not, makes it clear that Congress must follow San Francisco’s example and ban use of facial recognition technology, as well as repeal its national photo ID (“REAL ID”) scheme, and require federal agencies to delete their facial recognition databases. The states should either lead the way or follow suit by doing away with government-issued photo identification altogether.

Photo ID has always been marginally useful at best. Anyone who’s ever worked at a bar or liquor store knows that it’s unreliable on a visual check — and that its uses have been stretched far beyond its supposed purposes.

The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license. States imposed their licensing schemes on a seemingly justifiable pretext: A driver’s license proves that the driver whose photograph appears on it has taken and passed a test demonstrating safety and proficiency behind the wheel.

There are ways to do that without a photo.  Three that come to mind are a fingerprint, a digitized summary of an iris scan, or a similar summary of a DNA scan.

Yes, those methods are more expensive and impose a slightly higher burden on law enforcement in identifying a driver who’s been pulled over or arrested (and on anyone else who wants to confirm an individual’s identity). But they’re also far more reliable and less easily used in pulling police-state type abuses like those described in the Post story. They can’t be used for easy warrantless searches via distant cameras.

In recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the conversation over personal privacy has revolved around how much of that privacy “must” be sacrificed to make law enforcement’s job easier.

The answer to that question is “none.”

It’s not an American’s job to make law enforcement’s job easier. It’s law enforcement’s job to respect that American’s rights.

Since law enforcement has continuously  proven itself both unwilling and untrustworthy on that count, we need to deprive it of tools that enable that unwillingness and untrustworthiness.

Photo ID is obsolete and unnecessary. Facial recognition technology makes it dangerous. Let’s take those tools away from their abusers.

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Commercial Ammo: The Untold History of Springfield Armory and America’s Munitions Factories

To understand how American citizens today can get their hands on ammo, which rolls off the same factory lines as those that supply the world’s largest militaries, it’s important to first understand how munitions technology developed. Starting in medieval Europe, on a battlefield where a mounted knight in armor could defeat almost any number of peasants, the development of more advanced and accurate ways to destroy enemy personnel and equipment by launching a projectile is one which combines trial and error, scientific ingenuity, and private enterprise. It’s a story of power and technology dating back to the 13th century, at the height of “the divine right of kings,” and tracks the subsequent diffusion of that power held by a chosen few as the individual became capable of breaking the state’s monopoly on violence.

The first recorded use of gunpowder appeared in Europe in 1247, although China had used gunpowder for centuries before that, mostly for fireworks. The cannon appeared nearly 100 years later in 1327, with a hand-sized version making its debut in 1364. The first ordnances were made of stone, and while it might have been theoretically possible for anyone to own one, this would have been outside the financial reach of anyone but the nobility.

Stone was quickly discarded as a source of materiel for one simple reason: It wasn’t effective against stone fortifications. Thus did the first ever arms race begin, as medieval armies sought ways to fire heavier and heavier projectiles. The first recorded example of a metal ball being fired from a hand cannon came in 1425, with the invention of the hand culverin and matchlock arquebus, which led to lead balls becoming the gold standard for projectiles. This is where we get the term “bullet” – boulette is French for “little ball.”

Ammunition remained largely the same for centuries: Little balls of metal virtually anyone could make. This was true until the invention of rifling in the mid-19th century. Even this invention was, at first, not terribly useful for military purposes. Not only did the barrels quickly become useless, but the barrels often could not be fitted with a bayonet. This made early rifles impractical for military use and mostly a bit of a toy. Not until the advent of progressive rifling (which came, depending on one’s point of view, fortuitously or not, in the middle of the U.S. Civil War), did rifles become practical for military, and also widespread civilian purposes.

Copper jacketed bullets arrived in 1882, but since then the development of both military and commercial ammo has largely been about degrees rather than revolutionary innovations like rifling. The same basic design for cartridges has been in place since the late 19th Century.

Advancing technology was likely a driver in the move toward ammunition produced for commercial purposes, rather than simply military use. While in the past, it was common to simply make lead balls in front of the fire as a family after dinner, making a modern rifle cartridge is far beyond the means of most people. Further, it requires safety procedures above and beyond simply molding lead balls.

Continue reading Commercial Ammo: The Untold History of Springfield Armory and America’s Munitions Factories at Ammo.com.

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Weapons of War On Our Streets: A Guide to the Militarization of America’s Police

The claim often heard from those attempting to pass more gun control legislation is that all they’re trying to do is get the “weapons of war off our streets,” but it’s simply untrue that “weapons of war” are available to the general public. You’d last about three minutes in a conventional war with an AR-15, even with one of the most aggressive builds you can get your hands on (that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for guerrilla uprisings to defeat powerful enemies). The truth is that the only people with “weapons of war” on America’s streets are, increasingly, the police.

Thanks primarily to the Pentagon’s 1033 program which allows law enforcement agencies to get their hands on Department of Defense technology and the Bush-era War on Terror, American police have received a startling amount of heavy-duty, military-grade hardware. Between 1998 and 2014, the dollar value of military hardware sent to police departments skyrocketed from $9.4 million to $796.8 million.

And just as when “all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail”, militarized police have become more willing to use their new weapons when carrying out law enforcement tasks. For example, the number of SWAT raids in the United States grew dramatically from about 3,000 in 1980, to a whopping 50,000 SWAT raids in 2014, according to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

To say that the militarization of the police is nothing new is to ignore America’s recent history as well as the long-standing model of a peace officer. As the police have militarized and the Pentagon backs major players in Hollywood, the focus has shifted from one who keeps the peace to one who enforces the law – and that’s an important difference.

Continue reading Weapons of War On Our Streets: A Guide to the Militarization of America’s Police at Ammo.com.

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The Entrepreneur Who Became a Billionaire After Being Rejected by Facebook

Jan Koum had a rough upbringing. At 16, he immigrated from Europe to the United States with his mother and grandmother, who were fleeing political unrest and religious persecution. Jan’s mother got a job as a babysitter in California while Jan went to school and worked at a grocery store cleaning floors.

His father planned to join Jan and his mother once they were settled, but he got sick and died five years later, unable to be reunited with his family. Jan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, to which she would succumb just three years after Jan’s father passed away.

Jan Overcame Adversity

Perhaps not surprisingly given the adversity in his life, Jan acted out in school and got into trouble. He disliked school and what he found to be the shallow relationships of high school students. He barely graduated, but during his teen years in the US, Jan began to teach himself. He became interested in computers and networks and bought books and manuals on these topics at a nearby used bookstore, returning them when finished to get his money back.

He taught himself network engineering and eventually enrolled at San Jose University to study computer science and mathematics while getting involved in online network groups and hacker communities. Like high school, college also wasn’t appealing to Jan. “I hated school,” he told Forbes.

During college, Jan took a part-time job with the large accounting firm Ernst & Young, helping with computer security audits. One of E&Y’s clients with which Jan worked was Yahoo! and he was offered a job with the tech company while still studying at San Jose University. He quit college soon after to work full-time at Yahoo!.

Jan got bored with Yahoo!. At 31, he quit and took some time off to travel the world with a friend who also left Yahoo!. The duo applied for work at Facebook, but both were turned down. Two years later Jan bought an iPhone. He saw the potential of the App Store world and began working on code to create a new application that would streamline communication and conversation. Frustrated by his inability to get it working, Jan Koun almost gave up.

American Success Story

He stuck with his invention a bit longer and in 2009, at age 33, Jan Koum founded the text messaging platform WhatsApp with his former Yahoo! colleague Brian Acton. In 2014, it had 400 million users worldwide, and the pair sold the company to Facebook for $19 billion.

They might not have gotten that job offer at Facebook, but the offer they eventually got was something far better. By 2017, WhatsApp had 1.3 billion monthly users and billionaire Koum, who spent his childhood in communist Ukraine, became an American success story, showing the transformative power of freedom, entrepreneurship, and self-education.

Koum told WIRED Magazine:

I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on…Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state – the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.

Koum’s teenage self-education took place in the 1990s, before knowledge and information were so widely available and easily accessible, often at our fingertips. Today, a kid like Koum wouldn’t have a used bookstore as his only resource. He would be able to learn network engineering or any topic that interested him through free, online information portals and connect easily with people from around the world, finding mentors and like-minded peers—thanks in large part to inventions like WhatsApp.

Technology increasingly facilitates self-education, leading to new opportunities to pursue passions and uncover talents. Unlike formal education, that to many people like Koum can be stifling, self-education can be liberating. With self-education, you can become the agent of your own life and livelihood, setting your own path. As the author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn wrote: “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”

For Koum, that fortune was big, but the rest of us gained too. Freedom and entrepreneurship lead to the innovations that improve our lives and give our own dreams a boost, and self-education is the pathway to get there.

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