Sunday, May 02, 2004

Michael Ignatieff is an ignorant, ignorant motherfucker

Today's New York Times Magazine carries an article by Michael Ignatieff which combines astounding arrogance with astounding ignorance. Ignatieff writes with a voice of supreme superciliousness, lecturing his readers that "we need to change the way we think, to step outside the confines of our cozy conservative and liberal boxes". Meanwhile he recapitulates basically every incorrect argument, every "cozy" bit of received wisdom, that I've ever read about security and civil liberties.

The biggest unspoken assumption is that reducing civil liberties is likely to increase security. It is true that security and liberty are sometimes in conflict, but in many cases the most effective security measures do not decrease liberty at all.

The most egregious example of Ignatieff's ignorance is his support for a national ID system:

But being absolutely right on this issue doesn't make a civil liberties position right on every other issue. Consider the question of a national ID system. Instead of crying ''1984,'' the civil liberties lobby should be taking an honest look at the leaky sieve of the existing driving license ID system and admit how easy it was for the hijackers to talk their way into the ID's that got them onto the planes. Instead of defending a failed ID system, civil libertarians should be trying to think of a better one. One possibility is for Congress to establish minimum national standards for identification, using the latest biometric identifiers. Any legislation should build in a Freedom of Information requirement demanding that the government divulge the data it holds on citizens and purge data that is unsound.

Aarrrrrggghhh!!! When I read this, I literally leapt from my couch and punched the nearest chair. Civil libertarians do not merely "cry '1984'" in objection; that is a ridiculous straw man. And civil libertarians are not "defending a failed ID system" when they criticize proposals for national IDs; they are claiming that ID systems in general are open to tremendous abuse, and that therefore a heavy burden of proof falls on those who propose to extend their reach and pervasive influence in our society.

Furthermore, and more importantly, civil libertarians are not the only ones who oppose a national ID system. Mr. Ignatieff, you're a reporter, so perhaps you should, you know, interview some actual security experts before you go shooting your mouth off about security? The notion that a national ID system would increase national security has been comprehensively debunked by world-renowned security expert Bruce Schneier, several times. He points out numerous powerful objections, and most of them stem from pure security analysis:

What good would it have been to know the names of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, or the DC snipers before they were arrested? Palestinian suicide bombers generally have no history of terrorism. The goal is here is to know someone's intentions, and their identity has very little to do with that.

This objection, like many others, has never been credibly countered by advocates of a national ID system. Yet writers like Ignatieff and Nicholas Kristof (what is the deal with New York Times writers and this national ID system fetish?) persist in pretending that such a system would make us safer. Free Clue for the Clueless: A reliable ID system would not have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

The idea that national IDs would increase security sounds vaguely plausible at first, until you examine the specifics, at which point you realize it's a giant steaming mound of horse shit. (And, in retrospect, I think that the only reason it sounds plausible at first is that we've become conditioned, socially, to "present our papers" in all kinds of contexts --- many hotels, for example, now require you to present ID when you check in; if you think about it, there's actually no good reason for them to do this.) Notice that Ignatieff does not actually point out any specific scenario in which hijacking might have been prevented by a national ID system. Some of the hijackers had completely clean records. Among the ones who didn't, it's not clear that the blemishes would have been significant enough to prevent them from flying. Are we going to ban all convicted felons from commercial air flights? All Middle Eastern immigrants? All rural white people? Anybody who holds radical political views? In short, does Ignatieff propose even a single realistic scenario in which knowing someone's identity helps you defeat a terrorist attack? No, he does not. Ignatieff's writing is either extremely stupid or extremely irresponsible, and he should get the fuck off his high horse in caricaturing civil libertarians and security experts as a bunch of silly crybabies.

As for the notion that the government should "purge data that is unsound", well, duh, but that's far easier said than done. If Ignatieff had even the tiniest bit of experience with managing databases, or had spoken on the phone to someone who manages databases professionally for, say, thirty seconds, then he would recognize that maintaining security, integrity, and consistency of a database of this size over time is a stupendously difficult undertaking. Schneier thinks it is actually impossible, given the current the state of the art in computer security and database management. As a computer scientist, I'm inclined to agree.

In short, with respect to security, Michael Ignatieff is an ignorant, ignorant motherfucker who should stick to stuff that he's actually good at, like writing about foreign policy.

1 comment:

  1. Most of the time Ignatieff's stances bewilder me and make me very suspicious. His stance on the Iraq war, ID cards. It makes me wonder who is this guy and what makes him tick, and how can he be seemingly such an ignorant, ignorant motherfucker as you point out.