Reg hack, Infoseek founder debate brain scans

Public safety boon, or Kafkaesque nightmare?

We have here an e-mail debate on the virtues and risks of 'brain fingerprinting' as a public safety measure, following our story Brain-scans can defeat terrorism, InfoSeek founder [Steve Kirsch] claims, by yours truly. Kirsch insists that extraordinary threats demand extraordinary measures, while I try to illustrate the practical difficulties and potential human rights pitfalls of the scheme.

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Kirsch [mailto:steve.kirsch@propel.com]
Sent: Saturday, October 06, 2001 4:37 PM
To: 'Thomas C. Greene'
Subject: brain fingerprinting

Let's cut to the chase here.

Statement: brain fingerprinting can be used to reliably identify those with specific knowledge of what we are testing.

Do you agree, disagree, or do you just not know?

If you disagree, how confident in your position are you? Would you bet your life on it? Or is it just a hunch?

-----Original Message-----
From: Thomas C. Greene [mailto:thomas.greene@theregister.co.uk]
Sent: Saturday, October 06, 2001 8:36 PM
To: Steve Kirsch
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

My answer is that the test data are not adequate to overcome uncertainty. The study groups were too few and too small; there's been insufficient effort by other researchers to identify points of failure; there's been inadequate independent research into countermeasures. Show me a large, well-powered study by an organization *without* a financial interest in promoting this scheme, and I'll be able to say whether or not it's plausible. Until then, I'll assume it isn't.

But that's merely one objection, and it's not the most important one. Even if this scheme survives a thorough effort to debunk it and is proven reliable in the end, there are (at least) two other severe problems which render it irredeemably wrong-headed:

1. Hundreds of millions of people travel each year. The cost of repeatedly administering this test and of maintaining the data and guaranteeing its integrity will be immense. The economy relies on cheap, plentiful means of getting lots of people from one place to another quickly. Passengers will be very reluctant to pay for this scheme because the odds of being the victim of a suicide hijacking are astronomically low. You're using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. No one is going to pay an additional 20% for every air ticket they'll ever buy just to be assured that this incredibly remote possibility will be a tiny bit more remote. People are reluctant to pay for speed bumps in residential areas, for Christ's sake, where the cost of an effective solution is dramatically lower, and the threat to life and limb from speeding traffic is dramatically higher.

If the government is to handle it, then taxes will have to be raised, a real uphill climb to say the least — and no one is keen on having this sort of intimate personal data in the government's hands. If industry is to handle it, then they will have to make a profit off it. How do you earn a profit with this sort of data? Think DoubleClick on steroids..... No thanks. I don't want to be *that* safe, and neither will most people.

2. Once this technology and its data infrastructure are developed according to your proposal, it will be *impossible* to prevent it being abused in ways that will make suicide hijackers look like a minor irritant. Repressive governments will use it for loyalty-screening, and their law-enforcement agencies will use it as an interrogation tool to extract confessions. Businesses will use it against their employees. Can't happen here, you say? Rubbish. We're protected by a narrow buffer of gradually-eroding laws and rights. The legislative momentum in the US and Europe is stacked heavily towards increased government privilege. Look 50-100 years down the road.

Your proposal is embarrassingly optimistic, like the product of a child's imagination. So long as you persist in promoting this idiocy, I will persist in criticizing it in print.

You may publish this memo if you wish.

tcg

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Kirsch [mailto:steve.kirsch@propel.com]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 1:22 AM
To: 'Thomas C. Greene'
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

So what you said is that you don't know whether it will work. that's fine. In 20 years, not one shred of data proves your point. So how many people shall we test this on before you're convinced?

As far as your other points:

1. By far, the capital costs of the equipment dominate the expenses since these stations are like ATM machine… self-service. So it's a virtual $1B for everything. That's rounding error in the scope of the $70B cost of this one incident.

2. The genie is already out of the bottle. If the government wants to use this technology for evil purposes, they don't need your permission or mine. Your argument is as silly as saying once we have social security numbers, there is no stopping how the government will track us so we should eliminate social security numbers. Do you see any protest movements to eliminate the social security number? drivers license numbers? Lastly, if we have such a repressive government that would do as you suggest, the brain fingerprinting stuff is a toy in comparison to the techniques used (like torture). Consider the Taliban for example. They don't ask questions first, then just go in and kill people. Why waste time with such a test?

-----Original Message-----
From: Thomas C. Greene [mailto:thomas.greene@theregister.co.uk]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 2:37 AM
To: Steve Kirsch
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

"So how many people shall we test this on before you're convinced?"

I told you: one well-powered study by a disinterested organization will satisfy me.

"these stations are like ATM machine... self-service. So it's a virtual $1B for everything."

You're just picking a number out of your head. The database will have to be secured and its integrity maintained. Do you have any idea what the banking/consumer credit industry spends on this? The interest on your credit-card balances is a clue.

"The genie is already out of the bottle. If the government wants to use this technology for evil purposes, they don't need your permission or mine."

Wrong. The government can't use a weapon against us which we don't willingly concede. The populace first gives up the tool, and later the state expands its use incrementally, each time citing a 'good reason'. Get real: if the US government suddenly announced a scheme whereby each citizen must submit to brain-fingerprinting, blood would flow in the streets. Rather, we accept it willingly in a limited context, we get familiar with it, and the context is gradually widened.

"If we have such a repressive government that would do as you suggest, the brain fingerprinting stuff is a toy in comparison to the techniques used (like torture)."

Wrong. Maim or kill too many people and you threaten the economy, hence tax revenues, hence the state's stability (e.g., Haiti, North Korea, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Congo, etc...) The smart goal is to prosper whilst being horrible, like China. The system you propose, in diabolical hands, *is* a method of torture, and a good one. With it a government can keep the populace in a state of terror throughout their entire lives, cradle to grave.

<<skeletor voice>>
Evil thoughts, Mr. kirsch? Hmmm, not good....not at all good. You'll be hearing from us.....
<</skeletor voice>>

Chilling speech is only the beginning of repression. Chilling *thought* is so utterly monstrous that there is no physical torture that comes close. Read Kafka if you need this illustrated.

Look, why don't you just be a man about this and stand up and admit that your idea is foolish and irresponsible? Hell, we all make mistakes -- it's only human. I've been there. Everyone receiving this memo has been there. It's easy to understand, and to forgive. But clinging to it makes you look less like a guy who simply popped off without thinking, and more like a pathological asshole.

tcg

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Kirsch [mailto:steve.kirsch@propel.com]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 1:38 AM
To: 'Thomas C. Greene'
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

One more thing...

What value do you put on the 5,000 lives that were lost?
What value to you put on the 100,000 jobs that were lost?
Add that to the $100B that the government will spend on this.

Now compare that to the $200M it will cost per year to maintain these machines.

I think your math is off by almost 3 orders of magnitude if you don't think this is cost effective.

-----Original Message-----
From: Thomas C. Greene [mailto:thomas.greene@theregister.co.uk]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 2:40 AM
To: Steve Kirsch
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting (again)

What value do you place on the loss of privacy of *thought* for an entire population?

Give it up.

tcg

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Kirsch [mailto:steve.kirsch@propel.com]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 2:51 AM
To: 'Thomas C. Greene'
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

Let me see if I can simplify it for you....

You're at an airport. There are two planes waiting to take you to your destination.

Plane #1: everyone on board has passed the brain "security screen".

Plane #2: everyone on board has refused to take the screen, but has passed a traditional two question security screen.

Assume you have a wife and 3 kids.

Both planes leave at the same time. Both are going to the same destination.

Which plane do you get on?

-Steve

-----Original Message-----
From: Thomas C. Greene [mailto:thomas.greene@theregister.co.uk]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 3:08 AM
To: Steve Kirsch
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

I wouldn't have a choice. I would have refused to be scanned. And so would my wife, God bless her.

tcg

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Kirsch [mailto:steve.kirsch@propel.com]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 3:29 AM
To: 'Thomas C. Greene'
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

Fine. I think we're almost there....

You wouldn't be opposed to giving people a choice of which plane they wanted to board, would you?

This is America.... freedom of choice.... so you'd support having the option right? Or would you impose your will on all Americans and force them to go on the plane with (potentially) the terrorists by not giving them the choice?

-----Original Message-----
From: Thomas C. Greene [mailto:thomas.greene@theregister.co.uk]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 4:30 AM
To: Steve Kirsch
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

That's a good theoretical question. I don't think it's a practical one, however, because it's implausible to schedule two flights to every destination to accommodate those who fall on opposite sides of the issue. In reality, it will be necessary to decide it one way or the other.

But as a strictly theoretical question, assuming we could guarantee that it would remain voluntary in perpetuity (which I believe is impossible), then those who wish to acquiesce in pursuit of a (false?) sense of security should be granted that right, so long as it doesn't infringe the rights of those who would decline. Our duty to future generations demands that the right not to be compelled must, at a minimum, co-exist with the right to acquiesce.

Of course in the real world no such choice can be offered. It would be far too expensive. But if we suspend disbelief for the sake of argument, and assume that this were introduced as a voluntary scheme, the likelihood that it would in time become compulsory remains too high for my taste. And then there are those questionable secondary applications which we can't control, and the inevitable human-rights abuses in unenlightened parts of the world. It really is too dangerous to play with.

tcg

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Kirsch [mailto:steve.kirsch@propel.com]
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 11:49 AM
To: 'Thomas C. Greene'
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

Good. We're in agreement that we should offer people the choice.

Finally, where is it granted that I have a right to refuse answering questions before boarding a plane? Because if I have that right, then why can't I refuse to answer those security questions?

If I'm a foreign national with terrorist training from Al Qaeda, do I have a right to enter the US without the screen?

-----Original Message-----
From: Thomas C. Greene [mailto:thomas.greene@theregister.co.uk]
Sent: Monday, October 08, 2001 4:52 AM
To: Steve Kirsch
Subject: RE: brain fingerprinting

"Where is it granted that I have a right to refuse answering questions before boarding a plane? Because if I have that right, then why can't I refuse to answer those security questions?"

Questioning is based on routine social interaction. We show our ID, we answer questions — no big deal. We do these things routinely. Security personnel are allowed to observe us, sniff our luggage, and challenge people who appear suspicious. What you're proposing is different — it's invasive, like requiring passengers to pass a urine or blood test, or provide hair samples for DNA testing. There is a huge difference here, which the courts take very seriously.

"If I'm a foreign national with terrorist training from Al Qaeda, do I have a right to enter the US without the screen?"

You have the right not to be assumed to be a terrorist. If security people have reason to suspect that you are one, that's a different story. But there has to be a reasonable suspicion *before* the authorities can start attaching electrodes to our brains. The initial obstacle of 'reasonable suspicion' has existed for centuries in the civilized world for a very good reason. It protects innocent, law-abiding citizens from official interference as they go about their business; it provides a crucial check on state power. It means that we can't catch all the bad guys — but we accept this risk in the interest of our own human dignity. This is one of the basic footings of a free society. We *must* be able to go about our lawful business without justifying ourselves to every officious little twit in a uniform. This is an essential component of a dignified human life — a life worth living, and worth fighting to defend.

"Good. We're in agreement that we should offer people the choice."

Well, sort of. I do have to point out that what we agree on here is something I don't believe is practical. But if the technique survives rigorous independent testing; and you can figure out a way to make your system affordable while maintaining the data's integrity; and you can figure out how to make it impossible for businesses and governments to abuse it — even decades hence; and so long as it's 100% voluntary, and those who don't opt-in will be permitted to travel without any penalty beyond a bit of increased risk, then I'm all for it.

tcg

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