I had heard the story of Kurt Gödel discovering an inconsistency in the U.S. Constitution, one that would allow the U.S. to become a dictatorship. Towards the end of his life Oskar Morgenstern, who along with Albert Einstein went to the citizenship hearing for Gödel (all three were Institute for Advanced Study faculty at the time) recounted the events of that citizenship hearing. The exchange went something like this:
And then he turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?
Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.
The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?
Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.
The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.
Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.
As far as I’m aware, his discovery was never published and was either never revealed or lost through the years. I can’t imagine how three of the greatest minds to ever gather in one location (and they went as far as working in the same institution) could have avoided debating such a topic.
The memorandum from Morgenstern recounting the event (found here) is linked below and mirrored for posterity:
Morgenstern on Gödel citizenship [pdf] | original [pdf]
The Fourth Amendment in the United States Constitution reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
James Madison slipped up and failed to account for advancements in technology like computers and the Internet. Are digital files considered “papers and effects”? Is law enforcement copying files considered “searches and seizures”? If your files live on a server is that considered your “house”? Of course back in his day, this wasn’t even comprehensible. The amendment is a bit dated.
Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPICA) was an effort in 1986 to clarify how such laws applied to electronic communications. It too is somewhat outdated and heavily focused on the transfer than the storage aspect, something the modern SaaS model has completely disrupted. It’s also been weakened and contradicted by court rulings and things like the Patriot Act.
This creates enough of a legal quagmire to concern a seemingly bizarre list of companies and organizations to form the Digital Due Process Coalition to revise and clarify these laws. For companies like Google and Microsoft it makes sense. Their business relies on making companies and individuals feel comfortable trusting them with personal data. They are also increasingly stuck in odd positions thanks to contradictory and untested laws.
The outcome of this will possibly be as long-lasting and as iconic as the fourth amendment itself. Given our culture, information, and way of life is becoming increasingly digital it will impact a large part of how we function and will function in years to come. For anyone working in IT, this will impact the way you do business.