Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Letters to the Editor

Why All Writs Is a Trojan Horse

  1. Introduction
  2. Without Repeatability, There Is No Computer Science
  3. Plenty of Precedent for Banning Autonomous Weapons
  4. Author Responds:
  5. Bahrain Deports Masaud Jahromi
  6. References
  7. Footnotes
Letters to the Editor, illustration

Citing the All Writs act as a way to give the government the power to compel companies to redesign or reimplement their electronic products to government specifications represents a threat to everyone’s civil liberties. This U.S. federal statute, first adopted in 1789 and updated in 1911, today plays a pivotal role in the FBI vs. Apple legal battle in which a federal magistrate in California ordered Apple, at the behest of the FBI, to create and sign a new version of Apple’s iOS operating system. In a related court filing, the Justice Department said all information on an electronic device must be accessible to police under court warrant. Does that mean the government has the authority to obtain a court order to compel Apple to redesign its next generation of iPhones so it can break into and read any encrypted information? Moreover, can it prohibit importation of, say, Samsung smartphones for which Samsung has no ability to break in or read encrypted information?

Meanwhile, the Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming pervasive in every aspect of our lives, including insulin pumps, heart pacemakers, TVs with microphones, home video cameras, and even brain implants if a new DARPA project is successful. The Justice Department has proposed security agencies be given the authority to secretly access and take control of any IoT device when ordered by a court or by the executive branch. However, this would make it difficult for a court or even for Congress to prevent them from accessing and controlling large numbers of devices, potentially abusing their court- or executive branch-authorized surveillance authority.

The U.S. Congress should thus prohibit the potential usurpation of power that could result from All Writs, which predates the U.S. Bill of Rights, to require creation of mandatory backdoors in electronic devices. Toward this end, I would like to propose the following legislative principles to help guide the law in safeguarding our civil liberties. The U.S. government or any of its political subdivisions, including a state or its political subdivisions, may not order or coerce a manufacturer, seller, developer, or provider of computer hardware, software, or device made available to the general public to design, alter, or modify the related security features in order to allow a federal or state agency to obtain information stored in such a device or provide the ability to decrypt information encrypted therein.

This proposal aims to balance the Constitutional requirement to protect citizens’ civil liberties and for law enforcement to catch and prosecute criminals, including terrorists. It would uphold the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by prohibiting mandatory IoT backdoors that could provide access to sensitive personal information. At the same time, it would not prohibit access to "distributed encrypted public recording"1 (such as videos in public places, all financial transactions, and locations of cellphones from cell towers) so all recorded activities except those in personal IoT devices could be subpoenaed.

Carl Hewitt, Palo Alto, CA

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Without Repeatability, There Is No Computer Science

Christian Collberg and Todd A. Proebsting deserve our gratitude for their article "Repeatability in Computer Systems Research" (Mar. 2016) shining sunlight—the best kind of disinfectant, according to Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis—on the very real problem of lack of repeatability in computer science research. Without repeatability, there is no real science, something computer science cannot tolerate.

Alex Simonelis, Montréal, Canada

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Plenty of Precedent for Banning Autonomous Weapons

Moshe Y. Vardi concluded his Editor’s Letter "On Lethal Autonomous Weapons" (Dec. 2015) by saying "Knowledgeable, well-meaning experts are arguing the two sides of the LAWS [lethal autonomous weapons systems] issue. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the computing-research community is publicly grappling with an issue of such weight." The debate about lethal autonomous weapons goes back to at least President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars"), which proposed deployment of weapons of various types, including missiles and lasers, that would be controlled by computers and based partly in space. The stated primary purpose of SDI was to shoot down missiles carrying nuclear weapons while in transit, but SDI proposals also considered destroying missile-launch facilities.

The SDI proposal prompted intense worldwide debate about SDI’s reliability and risks, including whether life-and-death decisions could and should be entrusted to computer systems. Computer scientists David Parnas, David Bellin, Severo Ornstein, Alan Borning, and others, led by an organization called Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR, http://cpsr.org/), said computer technology is inherently too unreliable to allow it to make such decisions on its own, without human oversight. CPSR sponsored several debates on the topic and published a book called Computers in Battle: Will They Work2 often cited in today’s publications on autonomous weapons.

Gary Chapman,3 the editor of the book and CPSR’s first executive director, was a key figure in broadening the scope of the debate to include all computerized autonomous weapons. He and his colleagues at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and beyond published a number of papers and articles about the reliability, risks, and ethics of LAWS from the late 1980s until Chapman’s untimely death at age 58 in 2010.

Regarding the Point/Counterpoint debate "The Case for Banning Killer Robots" by Stephen Goose and Ronald Arkin (also in Dec. 2015), anti-personnel landmines are nothing more, nothing less than autonomous weapons with an extremely simple algorithm: Tread on me and I blow you up. Soldiers and other combatants place them in battle zones, and henceforth they operate without human control. The simplicity of the algorithm does not make them any less "autonomous" than high-tech AI-based weapons. Since well-accepted treaties have banned them internationally, it seems there is a strong precedent for banning computer-controlled LAWS as well.

Jeff Johnson (former chair of CPSR), San Francisco, CA

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Author Responds:

I thank Johnson for his instructive letter about the history of the debate on lethal autonomous weapons. In spite of the long history of the subject, the issues raised by strategic-defense weapons, landmines, and newer AI-based LAWS are quite different and should not be conflated.

Moshe Y. Vardi, Editor-in-Chief

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Bahrain Deports Masaud Jahromi

I have written several letters to the editor concerning the legal problems and denial of human rights of Masaud Jahromi, formerly chair of the Telecommunication Engineering Department of Ahlia University, Manama, Bahrain, over the past few years, starting with "Justice for Jahromi" (Nov. 2011). Since the last letter, "Bahrain Revokes Masaud Jahromi’s Citizenship" (Apr. 2015), the government of Bahrain has now formally deported him, making Jahromi today a "man without a country." Here, I briefly review his case and current situation, soliciting public support on his behalf.

In 2011, he was sentenced to four months in prison and fined 500 dinars for participating in "unauthorized rallies" during public protests. He served his sentence and was eventually restored to his position at Ahlia University. No additional allegations were made or evidence presented that he violated any law since then. Nevertheless, on January 31, 2015, Bahrain revoked his citizenship following an unsubstantiated accusation of "advocating regime change through illegal means."

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically prohibits arbitrary deprivation of anyone’s nationality. Implementing it, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a signatory, protects the right of individuals to due process and their right to free speech. Denial of citizenship without apparent basis in fact or law imposes severe damage on an individual, who consequently becomes stateless and homeless. Moreover, including Jahromi’s name on a list with the names of obvious terrorists serving ISIS abroad has damaged his reputation as an academic.

Despite Jahromi’s attempts to reverse the decision and supportive letters from well-known and respected organizations, including the Committee of Concerned Scientists, of which I am a vice-chair, and other human rights organizations, the Bahraini court has refused to reverse its decision.

In a recent email message, Jahromi wrote, "Currently I hold no nationality. The travel document that I have is valid until March 2017 and in place of nationality field it is indicated ‘Bahrain Resident.’ I have given entrance visa and able to stay in Beirut for 6 months only. Currently, I am staying with my friend and have no job opportunities." His wife and children were not permitted to leave Bahrain with him.

If any ACM member is able to suggest an opportunity for Jahromi at a college or university, please email me. I will send a copy of his vitae and inform Jahromi.

Jack Minker (minker@cs.umd.edu), College Park, MD

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