Quis custodiet custodes ipsos

I mostly like what Bruce Schneier writes about security. In general he writes about the mechanics of secure systems (and insecure ones that are supposed to be secure) but when he talks about Homeland Security policy or Diebold voting machines in the US he is straying into politics, it's unavoidable. On the whole he sticks to his core competencies and limits his political comment to demonstrably wrong or stupid government decisions.

A recent column in Wired is something of a departure for him. It is an overtly political piece, libertarian in tone, that questions the right of governments to carry out wholesale surveillance measures. For what it's worth I agree with the sentiment but I don't think this piece shows him in his best light.

His technical articles have a confident tone and an internal logic that makes them a compelling read. This polemic is more strident and contains hardly any logic at all. I question a few of his statements:

Privacy is a basic human need.

Privacy is a common human desire. I'm not a physician, psychologist or anthropologist so I can't comment on whether it's a need, but if Bruce Schneier has grounds for saying it's a need then he should make them explicit. He is not known for his medical expertise.

A future in which privacy would face constant assault was so alien to the framers of the Constitution that it never occurred to them to call out privacy as an explicit right.

This is a classic politician's half-truth. The framers of the US Constitution did not shrink from stating the obvious. Some of them had eleven years earlier said "we hold these truths to be self-evident". The privacy oversight was addressed a mere four years later in the Bill of Rights, in which the Fourth Amendment says "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

If, as he says, privacy is intrinsic to the concept of liberty then the constitution enshrines that perfectly well. The preamble states that the aim of the constituion is to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves".

How many of us have paused during conversation in the past four-and-a-half years, suddenly aware that we might be eavesdropped on?

Um. Not me. Actually.

I have borrowed one of his good points as the title of this post, and the other pithy remark he makes is about how power corrupts. He should have stuck to explaining the philosophical background to these quotes. They have survived centuries of examination. The rest of his piece is padding, much of it dodgy.


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