Iraq Timetable

There's an old joke: you go up to an attractive member of the opposite sex and ask them, would you sleep with me for $25 million? If they say yes, then the punch line is something like, "Now that we've established what you are, let's work out a better price". I think that this might be a useful strategy in attempting to bring the Bush administration to heel regarding withdrawal from Iraq.

For example, would the president sign a bill that had a mandatory withdrawal "within the 21st Century"? "Within the 3rd Millenium"?

I would think that his refusal to sign either of those bills would probably lead to his impeachment. I doubt that more than a handful of even the hardest of the hard-core rightwing Iraq hawks would have the stomach to keep up this struggle for 93 more years.

However, if he did sign, then the political battle, just like in the joke, would move to establishing a better "price", or in this case, a better date for withdrawal.

So, let's pursue this mental experiment: what about 50 more years? 20 more years? Or even ten more years? Would any of those timeframes be acceptable? One shudders to think that George Bush might be unwilling to commit himself to a withdrawal before ten more years of this slaughter have passed. My sense is that probably 20 years, or a generation (actually, 24 years counting those already passed) is about what he would be willing to sign.

But time passes very quickly. Think about how fast the past four years have gone by. In fact, a commitment to a 20 year deadline would actually be a substantive improvement over what we have now.

Furthermore, with a commitment to a time certain for withdrawal, even an absurd one like two decades, many things would become possible. For example, it would facilitate a much more concrete discussion about things like what our goals are in Iraq, the status of American military bases there in the long term, and so on. And, it would completely end the absurd "setting a deadline is 'cutting and running'" theme.

Therefore, I humbly suggest that the Democrat leaders submit a new bill to President Bush that is identical to the one he has said he will veto, but with a much longer deadline for withdrawal, for example, "within 20 years". Not only would it greatly enhance the dialog about the war, but would also be much more sane than the current endless, rootless, killing.


Social Security Numbers: release them all

The situation with identity theft and Social Security Numbers is getting worse. Recently it was announced that several US government agencies' web sites had been displaying thousands of SSNs for more than 10 years. In response, the pages were taken down, and the government has offered free credit monitoring for the individuals whose numbers were exposed. There have been other cases where even millions of SSNs were jeopardized.

But my question as a random philosophizer is, is the problem here that SSNs are being exposed through malfeasance and/or malefaction, or is the problem that these numbers, part of a system created 80+ years ago for reasons having nothing to do with unique personal identifiers, are being used as critical pieces of personal ID?

I think the answer is clearly the latter. SSNs are useful to identity thieves solely because they are a handy way to tell people apart, and because there is an assumption that they are private.

It is very expensive to protect SSNs, or to pay for credit monitoring when they are exposed. And under the situation we are in today, when one is exposed, it clearly does make the individual who holds the number more vulnerable to fraud via identity theft. I think that the whole approach is wrong-headed.

The random philosopher's plan for dealing with SSN exposure is very simple: the government should immediately open a database on one or more of their web sites listing all SSNs, along with the names and DOB of people registered under the numbers. This should be a public web site, with no restrictions on access.

While it sounds rather absurd, what this would do instantly is remove all expectations of privacy with regard to SSNs. It would not interfere with the administration of Social Security: the numbers would still be perfectly useful as Social Security account numbers, which is all they were designed to be. But they would no longer be useful in any way to help someone prove their identity, which would eliminate the problem of SSN fraud and of identity theft based on SSNs.

A minor advantage of this would be that employers could do some basic checks on employees claiming certain SSNs, just name, DOB, gender; the basic info on the Social Security card, which would be in the public database. This would help prevent people from using the wrong SSN, either through error or deliberately.

SSNs could still be used as unique identifiers, something they are extremely useful for, but they just wouldn't be useful as proof of identity. Instead, something more useful would have to be developed for this purpose.

Most people who have studied this problem concur that "smart" codes, along with biometric data of some sort (fingerprints, photos, retinal photos) are much more useful for this purpose. Another element of a reasonable system of identification is to have multiple independent sources of identity, so that even if one source is exposed or contaminated, the other sources would continue to be valid. However, the specification of a viable system of identity is beyond the scope of this note.

In summary: Social Security Numbers were never designed to function as proof of identity, and as a result, inadvertent or deliberate exposure of SSNs is a tremendous problem in our society. The problem with SSNs can be solved overnight if the government simply publishes them all, removing all expectancy of privacy from them. This action would have several additional advantages, but its primary effect would be to force bureaucracies that have been misusing the SSN as their clients' personal identifiers to find something better for this purpose.


Text messaging to the rescue

Today, the worst mass shooting in history happened at Virginia Tech. Over 30 killed and many wounded. The police and university officials are receiving a good deal of criticism, because the shootings happened in an initial, less mortal phase, followed two hours later by a second, horrible slaughter. It seems "obvious" to us that the campus should have been shut down during that two hours, in order to protect the university community.

The university used email and had people calling dorm RAs on the phones, but there are 26,000 students, plus faculty and staff, at that school, and most of them were on their way to campus during the critical two hours. So I ask the question: how in the world were the university officials supposed to implement a warning to tens of thousands of people, in a few minutes?

I think that we have reached a point in our cell phone technology where they can begin to perform a much larger role in emergencies than they do currently. The cell phone system works by interconnecting a vast network of smaller, local "cells", hence the name. When someone moves from one cell to another, the old cell deletes the SIM code from its database, and the new cell picks it up. As a result, the computers that control each cell always have an up-to-date list of all cell phones, by service provider, that are in range.

Therefore, it seems to me that there is no technical reason why in the case of a mass emergency, such as what happened today at VTU, but also other kinds of terrorism, or natural disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes, and so on, that emergency messages couldn't be pushed out from local cellphone towers to all phones in range.

In the worst case, it would take only a few minutes for a text message to be sent to every phone in range, and in most cases, it would take only seconds. Text messages are highly superior to voice messages for this purpose, because they do not require anything like the bandwidth or time of a two-way voice connection.

If all of the towers serving the VTU campus had sent out one or more messages after the initial shootings, they could indeed have shut down campus and warned virtually every member of the community, or someone standing nearby who could have spread the word.

Well, that's my thought on this topic.

Greg Shenaut