This is a followup to last week’s essay “OSD 217: A fire control API — the bull case for smart guns”.
The gist of the bull case is that smart guns turn firearms (static, hard to modify the internals of, high marginal cost of changes) into software (dynamic, easy and almost-free to modify).
The gist of the bear case is that the same thing that makes it easy for you to modify your gun could also make it easy for somebody else to modify your gun. Whether you want them to or not.
Quick detour. Back in 2017, a computer scientist named Muneeb Ali popularized a play on Google’s “don’t be evil” motto: can’t be evil. It was a call to go back to the cypherpunk ethos of the early internet. Ali gave some examples of can’t-be-evil technologies:
Decentralized domain name systems like BNS (used by Blockstack), Namecoin, ENS (used by Ethereum), and others are already available. They generally use blockchains to build a global DNS-like system in a fully decentralized manner; no single company can censor a website or forcefully take away the ownership of a domain.
Applied cryptography has been around for decades and forms the basis for many secure, decentralized systems. The technology is seeing a renewed interest and is getting easier to use with friendly interfaces for managing private keys and better-designed software.
So the logical conclusion might be, “Ok, simply build smart guns in a can’t-be-hijacked way rather than merely a don’t-be-hijacked way.” It’s not quite that simple though. When John Gilmore said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”, it wasn’t a normative statement about how people should behave. It was a descriptive statement about the internet’s emergent behavior. It interprets censorship as damage not because somebody’s choosing to do so, but because its very structure makes that the only possible result. Censoriousness is downstream of structure. The only ecosystem where censorship won’t happen is one where it’s not possible. Otherwise, if you have a blinking red “censor it” button sitting there, sooner or later somebody is going to press it.
This means that if a manufacturer can choose whether their smart gun is can’t-be-hijacked or don’t-be-hijacked, there’s really no choice at all — you’re already toast, it’s just a matter of time. The only true security is when it’s out of anybody’s hands.
That needn’t be forced onto companies. Gun buyers are plenty capable of rewarding companies that do this thoughtfully, and not rewarding companies that leave their products susceptible to hijacking by government or private hackers.
There’s a lot of precedent on this in the encryption world. In the aftermath of a 2015 terrorist attack — as ever, a time when the authoritarian security impulse was at a peak — Tim Cook went on TV and made a principled case for not backdooring iOS:
“This is about civil liberties and people's ability to protect themselves. If we take encryption away from the good people, the only people that will be affected are the good people.”
Cook took a stand here that most CEOs wouldn’t have had the courage to take. But it helped a lot that he had no choice — even Apple doesn’t hold the keys to your encrypted messages on iMessage.
So if the bear-case outcome with smart guns is to be avoided, the guns have to be technologically impossible to modify against your will, even if the manufacturer wants to. That might sound like a recipe for stasis, but that level of security actually unlocks more development speed — it frees smart guns from the centralized decision-making of a few companies and government agencies, and instead sets loose a few million gun owners on the problem. If you can tinker without fear of censorship, you’ll tinker a lot faster.
That might sound dangerous. But the nature of technology is that with very few exceptions, benefits accrue faster to defenders than to offenders. Faster to constructive uses than destructive ones. From “OSD 169: The prisoner’s dilemma of permissionless power”:
It’s easy to paint wide accessibility to tech as scary. But wide accessibility is the engine that drives improvements. “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Through that lens, free access to powerful tech isn’t the regrettably optimal solution to a prisoner’s dilemma — it’s the most effective process for good actors to keep bad actors in check. The solution to bad actors weaponizing past technological advances wasn’t to limit access, it was to expand access and sow innovation. That only becomes more true over time.
Some would say that fire-by-wire tech is dangerous, so in emergencies it should be possible for select agencies or companies to control it. That it’s too dangerous to be under the control of millions of people. But we’d say it’s too dangerous not to be.
The newsletter was going to end there, but after seeing a draft in Discord, one of our excellent subscribers had this to say:
Hey you tricked me
This isn’t a bear case
It’s like reading a bitcoin thread on twitter. The bearish case for bitcoin: this is good for bitcoin
So someone makes cypherpunk pistol (ethos not aesthetic), so that tinkering is happening rapidly and amazing things are happening. But most of us aren’t going to learn to use linux (download wine to use steel case ammo) to shoot for self defense.
Luckily there’s AWS Personal Defense. The gun just works and even links to your Ring camera system so your defense incidents are recorded for evidence. Yeah some police departments are doing warrantless shutdowns of all defense pistols in certain neighborhoods where they think there might be a violent criminal, but only paranoid people follow all that cybersecurity stuff and they’re crazy
So the danger in the can’t-be-evil weapon is irrelevance due to poor user experience
But if you like to tinker and can copy and paste a little code you can get your rifle to do gradually accelerating full auto, like holding backspace on a phone keyboard
Which is an excellent point. Much of the history of technology is that the anti-establishment nerds invent an all-powerful magic wand — then if it’s any good, the masses adopt it, realize the UX sucks, and get hungry for something easier to use. And eventually some company releases the Wandy™, sells 100 million of them, and the NSA starts licking its lips.
But the key is that the nerds stay the keepers of the flame. Today, the following two things are true at the same time:
Technology has never been a more powerful lever for government to control or surveil people.
People who want to use technology to stay free have never been more empowered to do so.
And in a way, that shouldn’t be surprising. Decentralized technology is about giving you the choice to use a tool. Some people will choose not to use it, for their own reasons. But as long as the people who want a choice still have it, things are going to be just fine.
This week’s links
Matt Hoover of the CRS Firearms channel on YouTube convicted of federal machine gun felonies for, essentially, promoting lightning link stencils
He faces up to 45 years in prison. Mrgunsngear explains the case above. Check out the CRS Firearms channel here, and you can contribute to the legal defense here. Matt’s codefendant, Kristopher Ervin, was also convicted and is facing up to 110 years. The two of them were convicted for promoting the AutoKeyCard, a piece of metal with a lightning link drawn on it. Kristopher was convicted of illegal selling machine guns for producing AutoKeyCards, and Matt was convicted of conspiracy to illegally sell machine guns for accepting ads for them in his videos.
Andy Stumpf interviewing a SWAT officer who responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting
Overriding takeaway: the hardest and most important task in these situations is to handle a firehose of data (some of it true and much of it false) and still take fast, precise action.
160,000 rounds of ammunition meant for Columbus police stolen in heist
Ok, which one of you did this.
“A journey into the philosophy and legal structure behind personal defense in the United States”
If we take as given that a person has a right to the life they were given, what level of effort or activity are they entitled to by their very existence to maintain and preserve their life? As a contemporary society, we seem to believe axiomatically that a person has the right to ply their efforts to acquiring resources to sustain themselves and their family. If this is uncontroversial, then should it follow that a person has a right to preserve and defend themselves and their family from those that might do them harm? After all, shouldn’t it be fair to preserve the life one has spent effort to build?
The ineluctable logic of gun ownership
Good insight into the mindset of someone who dislikes guns but owns them anyway.
Gun buybacks are popular, but do they work?
Breakdown from The Trace.
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A possible clarification on the Hoover-Ervin situation,
AFAIK, the Auto Keycard didn't have a lightning link drawing etched on it, it had a deliberately off-size drawing that more or less resembled a lightning link. Anyone with the skill to make one of these work would have to modify it based on the knowledge of the actual lightning link, and it would in fact be quicker and easier to make a lightning link using a downloaded and freely available template. Indeed if it took the ATF "Expert" A half hour to dremel out the Auto Keycard, that's at BEST no less time than it would take to carve an actually working lightning link out of sheet stock with a template that can be found online and printed out in 10 seconds.
This in my eyes puts the "readily convertible" clause of the rule into serious question.