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Illegal prime (wikipedia.org)
39 points by avinassh on Nov 22, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 26 comments

This is the "they're all just plants, man, they grow in the earth" argument of technologists. I wonder what goofy arguments accountants have.

If it wasn't obvious (for instance, because you've never implemented RSA before): all information can be represented as a number (and I suppose, theoretically, as primes).

This article is the "they're all just plants" argument of technologists? I thought Wikipedia articles didn't have a point of view...

Anyway... what's wrong with the "they're all just plants" argument with regards (I'm assuming) to the completely absurd "War on Drugs"? How is that goofy? I don't think it's goofy at all. I think it's a fairly common-sense, level-headed reaction to the absolutely ridiculous idea that people need be protected from putting whatever they want into their own bodies.

I am perfectly fine with people putting whatever substances they want into their own bodies . . .

As long as their subsequent actions do not impose significant costs upon everyone else. Some of those people will continue to be productive citizens. Others will not. And that's fine too, as long as they don't expect everyone else to feed and care for them.

Now I could raise the issue of crime. Everyone else should not have to deal with crime caused by people trying to get their next fix. But that problem (mostly) goes away by not making the substances illegal in the first place. The crime problem only continues to exist if some people become unemployable but have to commit crime in order to get their next fix.

First time reading Wikipedia?


But I didn't see any argument put forth in this article that equates to the "they're all just plants" argument...

Care to point it out?

They're both appeal to nature arguments. "Tobacco should never be regulated because it grows in nature" and "Cryptography should never be regulated because it uses math".

There are plenty of reasons to be anti-DRM or pro-user privacy, but the "it uses numbers" argument is not a particularly good one.

OK, just to be clear: the Wikipedia article does not state this argument or really represent in any way.

I'm just not sure who the criticism was directed towards.

The particular argument you allude to (at least, the canonical version) concerns the nature of math as it relates to constitutional limitations on patents. I agree that it's a poor argument for many reasons, but it would be especially poor in this context because patent law doesn't make it illegal to communicate a patented invention, merely to use or apply the invention (or inducement thereto).

Illegal primes, however, seem to relate more to DMCA anti-circumvention measures and the restraint on free speech imposed by law. The DMCA makes it illegal not only to actually circumvent copy protection, but to

  offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any
  technology, product, service, device, component, or part
  thereof, that—

  (A) is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of
  circumventing a technological measure that effectively
  controls access to a work protected under this title;
It's much like arms control restrictions for cryptography. The particular issue is about free speech, not about unrestrained exploitation of information per se.

Not that it's really relevant, but I am not sure you can encode all QM information as a number even in theory. However, if we accept copyright/patents/trademarks/etc then this is not a big stretch.

And trade secrets, and nondisclosure agreements in contracts between professionals, and tax information, and private medical information, and student grades, and driving records, and

Well, duh: every computer program is just a single, very long, number. But it's still ridiculous.

That may be, but if it's ridiculous, it's not because it's ridiculous to "make numbers illegal".

(If you're looking for more nits: this is also a misuse of the word "illegal", and further [and separately] it's not the numbers that are unlawful.)

The budding discussion in these comments reminds me of the classic post "What Colour are your bits?" - http://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/entry/23

This concept is dizzying for me.

Is it OK to think of numbers as a landmass? Is it OK to think of that numerical landmass to be partitioned and owned? Is it OK to hide things in private plots of numbers? Is it OK to expect your numerical plot to be private?

I'm not sure if I like it, or hate it.

Copyright and patent attempt to protect you from others stealing your research & efforts involved in producing a product. If someone represents your idea as a number, and then copies it with the intention of using it for their own purposes without coming to a licencing arrangement with you, then they have broken copyright / patent. It's incidental that the representation of the information is numerical. Additionally the likelihood of some other useful random number coinciding with the numerical representation of your special information is also extremely low - hence why the OP used a prime ( which are pretty common ), and also why it's interesting ( and therefore exceptional ).

All digital information can be thought of as a number. If we can restrict harry potter, then having an Illegal prime is not that big a stretch.

What an interesting hack to publish source code! Read the first sentence of wikipedia quite a few times and still didn't understand, while the later text made it clearer..

'An illegal prime is a prime number that represents information whose possession or distribution is forbidden in some legal jurisdiction'

Maybe the coolest math term I heard all year.

Yet another incredibly stupid idea. Thank you, legal system.

It's a stupid presentation of an arguably reasonable idea.

No, it is a stupid presentation of an even more stupid idea.

Numbers are abstract constructions devoid of any meaning. For mathematics to have any practical application, there are of course ways to assign meaning to numbers, but there are arguable infinite amounts of mappings that can match numbers to concepts. There are also infinite number of ways to match every number to every other... so, if you have enough computing power, it can be demonstrated that you could, at least theoretically, match every conceivable concept to every other.

The idiocity of the legal implications is beyond limits. The only legal defense to such enourmous liability is to restrict yourself, for your practical applications to sufficiently small numbers such that there is not enough entropy in them to hold any potentially forbidden information. Good bye IEEE754, hello PI==3!!!

Your analysis here is roughly isomorphic to the original presentation.

The law doesn't care about the actual bits, except insofar as they represent evidence of what's really at issue. The law cares that you have some pattern of bits that you laid out with the intent that it represent BAD THING X. If it happens to appear in the digits of PI you've been reading out, you're not at risk. If you go to others saying "You can find the BAD THING at offset XYZ in PI", then that's another matter - you've got the data and the interpretation. On the other hand, if you happen to stumble across one of these primes and don't notice, not a problem. The known "illegal primes" were found specifically by looking for primes that represented illegal things.

I'm not convinced that criminalizing possession of data is a good idea, but it's not "under some arbitrary interpretation".

What, that numbers can be owned? That's insane.

Numbers can be owned in specific contexts, not universally. Nothing insane about it.

It's not the prime that's illegal, it's the prime + the connection to its ability to circumvent specific encryption.

The number itself without that connection is not illegal.

I.e. 123 is not illegal by itself. "123 is the encryption key to XYZ's DRM" is illegal.

Fuck the legal system.

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