Re: Future Technologies of Death

Hal Finney (
Thu, 1 Jan 1998 16:39:25 -0800

Two messages illustrate the point I was trying to make about kneejerk
reactions. Nick Bostrom proposed a hypothetical machine which would scan
a person and determine whether they had commited a certain crime, without
revealing any other information about them. He asked:

> What legitimate reason could anybody
> have for not wanting the law enforcing agency scan his mind with this
> device in order to find out if he had commited a crime?

Michael Lorrey replied:

> Simple: The 5th Amendment. It is my right to not be forced to
> incriminate myself. Scanning my innards with some whizbang device is
> using technology to make me involuntarily incriminate myself. This is
> also why you can't be forced to take a lie detector test. If you think
> I've done something wrong, its up to you to prove I did it with evidence
> that is external to me. I am innocent until you PROVE me guilty. I can
> then, if I so choose, use your fancy device to counter your evidentiary
> proof by volunteering to have myself scanned.

Harvey Newstrom replied:

> Should we force everybody to undergo mandatory
> drugtesting, fingerprinting and routine traffic stops to greatly enhance
> the ability to detect certain criminals? The current answer in the United
> States is (theoretically) no. We have to have reason to believe a person
> is guilty before they are investigated in such a manner. We do not
> investigate everybody to make sure we catch the criminals.
> My point is that this is not a theoretical question for the future. We
> have similar technologies now. Are you proposing that we should submit to
> these types of routine procedures today?

It seems to me that both of these messages circumvent the main point,
which is whether this technology should be exploited (the messages made
other points as well, but I want to focus on the central issue posed
by Nick). The messages appear to view Nick's proposal as a threat to
their freedom. Michael Lorrey argues that the 5th amendment protects him
from being forced to submit to the device, while Harvey Newstrom also
describes the legal protections in the United States and asks whether
everyone should be forced to submit routinely to similar technologies
available today. (He may be speaking rhetorically and in fact arguing
that we should not have to do so.)

Again, look at it not as a threat to your freedom, but as a choice.
As I wrote, imagine two societies, one where people voluntarily agree
to submit to these scans, and another where they don't. (There could
be other cases, such as societies where people agree that they will be
scanned only if a court finds probable cause that they may have commited
the crime.) Which one will you prefer to live in? Will you voluntarily
agree to be scanned in this limited and specific way, knowing that by
doing so you will live in a world in which virtually all criminals are
caught, and hence that the crime rate is very low? Much of the time and
effort you spend protecting yourself today could be saved, at the cost of
losing this part of your privacy. Some people will accept the tradeoff,
while others won't.

The point is, by viewing Nick's proposal as a threat to rights and
protections you have today, you avoid the hard part of the question.
It's a knee jerk response. Fifth amendment, legal protections, forcing
people to submit is wrong. Fine, we can all agree about that. But the
question is still there. If it were done voluntarily as I described,
so that everyone involved was informed and everyone had agreed to the
conventions that would be followed, there are no legal problems and
no use of force or coercion. Look at it beyond a shallow libertarian
analysis and you have to grapple with a much harder problem.

Personally, I am sensitive about my privacy, but I could see myself
agreeing to a rule that would allow scans under some circumstances.
I would not want to be subject to routine scans every time there was a
purse snatched or someone scrawled graffiti on a wall, but if there were
some mechanism to establish a reasonable chance that I had commited a crime,
then I could accept it. I'd expect that this would virtually never happen
and so it could be tolerable.