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A cryptographic solution to securely aggregate allegations could make it easier to come forward

Nobody wants to be the first person to do or say a risky thing. One recent example of this is the revelations that a number of powerful figures, like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and Bill Cosby, had a long pattern of sexual harassment and even assault, and many people were aware of it, but nobody came forward until much later.

People finally come forward when one brave person goes public, and then another, and finally people see they are not alone. They might be believed, and action might be done.

Eleven years ago, I proposed a system to test radical ideas, primarily aimed at voting in bodies like congress. The idea was to create a voting system where people could cast encrypted votes, with the voter’s identity unrevealed. Once a majority of yes votes were cast, however, the fragments of the decoding key would assemble and the votes and the voter identities could be decoded.

This would allow, for example, a vote on issues where a majority of the members support something but few are willing to admit it. Once the total hit the majority, it would become a passed bill, with no fear in voting.

I still would like to see that happen, but I wonder if the approach could have more application. The cryptographic approach is doable when you have a fixed group of members voting who can even meet physically. It’s much harder when you want to collect “votes” from the whole world.

You can easily build the system, though, if you have a well trusted agency. It must be extremely trusted, and even protected from court orders telling it to hand over its data. Let’s discuss the logistics below, but first give a description of how it would work.

Say somebody wants to make an allegation, such as “I was raped by Bill Cosby” or “The Mayor insisted I pay a bribe” or “This bank cheated me.” They would enter that allegation as some form of sworn legal statement, but additional details and their identity would be encrypted. Along with the allegation would be instructions, “Reveal my allegation once more than N people make the same allegation (at threshold N or less.)”

In effect, it would make saying “#metoo” have power, and even legal force. It also tries to balance the following important principles, which are very difficult to balance otherwise:

  1. Those wronged by the powerful must be able to get justice
  2. People are presumed innocent
  3. The accused have a right to confront the evidence against them and their accusers

How well this work would depend on various forms of how public the information is:

  • A cryptographic system would require less (or no) trusting individual entities or governments, but would make public the number of allegations entered. It would be incorruptible if designed well.
  • An agency system which publishes allegation counts and actual allegations when the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps allegation counts private until the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps everything private, and when the threshold is reached discloses the allegation only to authorities (police, boards of directors).

There are trade-offs as can be shown above. If allegations are public, that can tell other victims they are not alone. However, it can also be a tool in gaming the system.

The allegation must be binding, in that there will be consequences for making a false allegation once the allegations are disclosed, especially if the number of existing allegations is public. We do not want to create a power to make false anonymous allegations. If it were public that “3 people allege rape by person X” that would still create a lot of public shame and questions for X, which is fine if the allegations are true, but terrible if they are not. If X is not a rapist, for example, and the threshold is high, it will never be reached, and those making the allegations would know that. Our system of justice is based important principles of presumption of innocence, and a right to confront your accusers and the evidence against you.  read more »

Could states affect gerrymandering outside their state with conspiracy rules?

In puzzling over solutions to gerrymandering, I remain stymied by the following problems:

  • The people in power don’t want to undo the gerrymandering that is putting them in power.
  • The courts want to stop gerrymandering but they only overturn rules, they try not to write new ones.
  • States could act, especially a few in concert, but what they do might be overturned by the courts

Arguments were heard this week in a lawsuit attempting to get the supreme court to stop gerrymandering. Courts have been ready to declare that a district is gerrymandered, but are reluctant to force states to adopt some rule on how they draw their districts. The concern is that there is no one best and most fair way to draw districts. You can tell when a district is unfair, but it’s up to states to write the rules and the courts to rule on their constitutionality. The plaintiffs have a hope that the courts might rule that any districting is a disenfranchisement, and force states to allocate representatives based on a proportional system from a statewide popular vote.

I have wondered if states can find, on their own, the power to fix this. Many states have already written anti-gerrymandering rules for their own districts, but can they make those have extra-territorial effect.

One way is with an interstate compact. I outline a plan for this here. It has the problem that the counter-gerrymandering might be found illegal by the court. Remember the court is ready to say, “That’s not a valid district shape” without saying a formula for what a valid district shape is. They just know it when they see it.

Here’s another idea — possibly unconstitutional as well, but it may be improved with refinement.  read more »

Robocar-only highways are not quite so nice an idea as expected

Recently Madrona Ventures, in partnership with Craig Mundie (former Microsoft CTO) released a white paper proposing an autonomous vehicle corridor between Seattle and Vancouver on I-5 and BC Highway 99. While there are some useful ideas in it, the basic concept contains some misconceptions about both traffic management, infrastructure planning, and robocars.

Carpool lanes are hard

The proposal starts with a call for allowing robocars in the carpool lanes, and then moving to having a robocar only lane. Eventually it moves to more lanes being robocar only, and finally the whole highway. Generally I have (mostly) avoided too much talk of the all-robocar road because there are so many barriers to this that it remains very far in the future. This proposal wants to make it happen sooner, which is not necessarily bad, but it sure is difficult.

Carpool lanes are poorly understood, even by some transportation planners. For optimum traffic flow, you want to keep every lane at near capacity, but not over it. If you have a carpool lane at half-capacity, you have a serious waste of resources, because the vast majority (around 90%) of the carpools are “natural carpools” that would exist regardless of the lane perk. They are things like couples or parents with children. A half-empty carpool lane makes traffic worse for everybody but the carpoolers, for whom the trip does improve.

That’s why carpool lanes will often let in electric cars, and why “high occupancy toll” lanes let in solo drivers willing to pay a price. In particular with the HOT lane, you can set the price so you get just enough cars in the carpool lane to make it efficient, but no more.

(It is not, of course, this simple, as sometimes carpool lanes jam up because people are scared of driving next to slow moving regular lanes, and merging is problematic. Putting a barrier in helps sometimes but can also hurt. An all-robocar lane would avoid these problems, and that is a big plus.)

Letting robocars into the carpool lane can be a good idea, if you have room. If you have to push electric cars out, that may not be the best public goal, but it is a decision a highway authority could make. (If the robocars are electric, which many will be, it’s OK.)

The transition, however, from “robocars allowed” to “robocars only” for the lane is very difficult. Because you do indeed have a decent number of carpools (even if only 10% are induced) you have to kick them out at some point to grow robocar capacity. You can’t have a switch day without causing more traffic congestion for some time after it. If you are willing to build a whole new lane (as is normal for carpool creation) you can do it, but only by wasting a lot of the new lane at first.

Robocar packing

Many are attracted to the idea that robocars can follow more closely behind another vehicle if they have faster reaction times. They also have the dream that the cars will be talking to one another, so they can form platoons that follow even more closely.) The inter car communication (V2V) creates too much computer security risk to be likely, though some still dream of a magic solution which will make it safe to have 1500kg robots exchanging complex messages with every car they randomly encounter on the road. Slightly closer following is still possible without it.  read more »

GM accepts all liability in robocars, and other news

General Motors announced this week that they would “take full responsibility” if a crash takes place during an autonomous driving trip. This follows a pledge to do the same made some time ago by Daimler, Google and Volvo and possibly others.

What’s interesting is that they don’t add the caveat “if the system is at fault.” Of course, if the system is not at fault, they can get payment from the other driver, and so it’s still OK to tell the passenger or owner that GM takes responsibility.

GM is moving on a rapid timetable with the technology they bought with Cruise not too long ago. In fact, rumours of a sooner than expected release actually shot their stock up a bit this week.

Even to this day I still see article which ask the question, “who is liable in an accident?” and then don’t answer it as though the answer is unknown or hard to figure out. It never was. There was never any doubt that the creators of these vehicles would take responsibility for any accidents they cause. Even if they tried not to, the liability would fall to them in the court system. People have been slow to say it because lawyers always advise clients, “never say in advance that you will take liability for something!” Generally good advice, but pointless here, and the message of responsibility makes customers feel better. Would you get into a taxi if you knew you would be liable if the driver crashed?

Senate bill

In other news this week, a Senate panel passed its own version of the House bill deregulating robocars. Notable was the exclusion of trucks, at the request of the Teamsters. I have predicted since this all began that the Teamsters would eventually bring their influence to bear on automated trucking. They will slow things down, but it’s a battle they won’t win. Truck accidents kill 4,000 people every year, and truck driving is a grueling boring profession whose annual turnover sometimes exceeds 100%. At that rate, if they introduced all-automated truck fleets today, it would be a very long time before somebody who actually wanted a trucking job lost it to the automation. Indeed, even in the mostly automated world there will still be routes and tasked best served by humans, and they will be served by those humans who want it.

Actually, this new-world trucking will be a much nicer job. It will be safer, and nobody will drive the long-haul cross-country routes that grind you with boredom, take you away from your home and family for a week or more while you eat bad food and sleep in cheap motels or the back of your rig.


Speaking of trucking, while I have not been commenting much on the Waymo/Uber lawsuit because of my inside knowledge, and the personalities don’t bear too much on the future of the technology, it certainly has been getting fast and furious.

You can read the due diligence report Uber had prepared before buying Otto, and a Wired article which starts with a silly headline but has some real information as well.

Other items

Luminar, the young 1.5 micron LIDAR startup, has announced that Toyota will use their LIDARs.

Lyft has added Ford, along with Google to its partner list. Since Lyft did a $500M investment deal with GM, it’s clear they don’t want to stick with just one player, even for that sum. Google may have larger sums — it does seem clear that the once happy partnership of Uber and Google is over.

Baidu announced a 10 billion Yuan investment fund for self-driving startups.

Rumours suggest Waymo may expand their Phoenix pilot to a real self-driving taxi service for the public sooner than expected.

My 4-camera 4K eclipse video and about traffic from the Eclipse

The Eclipse of 2017 caused dire traffic warnings, even from myself. Since a total eclipse is the most amazing thing you will see, and one was coming to a rich country where almost everybody owns a car, and hundreds of millions live within a day’s drive — I wondered how we would not have horrendous traffic. (You can see my main Eclipse report and gallery here or see all my Eclipse articles.)

Also look out below for a new 4K video I made from having 4 different video cameras running around the eclipse. I have started you 3 minutes in for the short-attention-span world, but you might also enjoy the 3 minutes leading up as the excitement builds. Even on an HD display, be sure to click through to Youtube to watch it full screen.

As described, the 4 cameras are two 4K cell phones facing forward and back, plus an HD video from a 1200mm superzoom camera and snippets of 4K video and stills from the main telescope and Sony A7rII.

The big places for predicted bad traffic were central Oregon, because it was the place with the best weather that was closest to everybody from Seattle to Los Angeles, and areas of South Carolina which were closest for the whole eastern seaboard. At a popular Eclipse site, they had a detailed analysis of potential traffic but in many cases, it was quite wrong.

The central Oregon spine around the tiny town of Madras did get really bad traffic, as in reports of 4 to 6 hours to get out. That was not unexpected, since the area does not have very many roads, and is close to Washington and relatively close to California. At the same time, a lot of traffic diverted to the Salem area, which got a nice clear sky forecast. It has an interstate and many other roads. Planning ahead, Madras was the best choice because the weather is much more unpredictable west of the Cascades. But once the forecast became clear, many people from Seattle, Portland and California should have shifted to the more populated areas with the larger roads.

I decided, since it was only 2 hours more driving to Weiser (on the Oregon/Idaho border) but much less traffic, to go to the Snake River valley. It was the right choice — there was almost no traffic leaving Weiser. In fact, Weiser did not get overwhelmed with people as had been expected, disappointing the businesses. Many thought that a large fraction of Boise would have tried to get up to that area, but they didn’t. We actually wandered a bit and ended up over the river in a school field in Annex, Oregon.

There was no problem finding space, even for free.

This is a pattern we’ve seen many times now — dire predictions of terrible traffic, then almost nothing. It turns out the predictions work too well. The famous Carmageddon#History) in Los Angeles never materialized — even with a major link cut, traffic was lighter than normal.

This is, in turn a tragedy. It seems a lot of people did not go see the eclipse because they were scared of bad traffic. What a great shame.

4K Video

At my sight I had 4 cameras recording video. I set up two cell phones, both able to do 4K, looking at our group from in front and behind. The one behind I put in portrait mode, almost capturing the sun, to show that view, while the one in front showed us looking at the eclipse and also the shadow approaching on the hills.  read more »