The Cost of Safety

Worried about your safety? The safety of your wife/daughter/son/house/car/whatever? If you did worry about something like that in the past, when considering options to make something more safe, did you consider the cost?

Paul Graham wrote a nice essay “Artists Ship” (after the remark by Steve Jobs). Please ignore his “only programmers love to work hard”. The rest of the argument is very convincing. When people talk about “improving” some situation (crime rate, child abuse, revenue streams), they often propose solutions but there is little to no discussion about the cost of said “solution”.

So we want to protect our children against molesters. Fair enough. Only in the discussion, you can’t argue with reason because it’s so emotional. People don’t know anything about the reasons why someone becomes a pedophile or how (and if at all) this can be treated. They want a “solution”, completely ignorant of the cost. It’s a fact that “better” solutions (which will catch more violators) will always harm more innocent people.

Let’s look at a related case. Make up your mind about this case: “Julie Amero, a 40-year-old substitute teacher from Connecticut is facing up to 40 years in prison for exposing her seventh grade class to a cascade of pornographic imagery.” (more). Guilty? Innocent? What’s “exposing” supposed to mean here? Did she show them intentionally? Such a simple case and so many questions …

Say I want to write a program that automatically searches the Internet for child pr0n and sends alerts to the authorities. I can’t. It’s not possible anymore in any western country because I could neither test my program nor use it: Even the download of child pr0n is illegal. It’s illegal before a human can see it. I wonder how all those web filters work … Maybe they build them in a country where child abuse is not illegal.

So you like to watch pr0n but don’t want to pay? The Internet is full of “free” ware. But downloading “good.jpg” might get you into jail, depending on what you might find in the image afterwards. Guilty? Innocent?

Most computers on the Internet are vulnerable to all kinds of attacks. It’s ridiculously simple to spread viruses and worms which effectively take over your computer. Who is guilty when a cracker puts illegal pictures on your PC? You, because you didn’t understand the technology? You, because it is too hard to catch the cracker? You, because the prosecution doesn’t understand the technology, either? You, because the jury can’t follow the explanations of the experts anymore?

On the other hand, a clever pervert might infect his computer deliberately, so he can always say “it was the virus!”. With todays paint software, how hard is it to replace the head of an adult with one of a child and reduce the cup size? How hard is it to prove that the picture is real? How about pencil drawings? You do know that most paint programs come with “artistic filters”.

Such topics tend to become witch hunts where anyone can potentially be as guilty as we want them to be. Justice isn’t blind to protect the successful criminal, she’s blind in order to protect the innocent against prejudice.

So next time, you ask for a new rule, think about the cost, first.

Btw. During the research for this article, I googled for “teacher england hacker child porn“. Condemn me.

Links (in the order in which I stumbled over them):

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