Trust and Security

Liars & OutliersIt is not my intention to post regular book reviews here, but every now and then a worthy exception will appear. One such exception is “Liars & Outliers” by Bruce Schneier. Subtitled: “Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive”. (Cover image on the right from the author’s website.)

As the title probably makes obvious, this is non-fiction. The book is about the critical parts that trust and cooperation play in modern society. The ultimate thrust of the book is to suggest that a better understanding of these concepts can improve the way society operates, possibly resulting in fairer systems of justice, more effective security, and an understanding of the imperfections that will always remain – indeed, imperfections that are necessary for the health of society.

For the most part, this is not a strongly technical book, anyone could pick it up and learn a lot. Read it slowly, there are not many wasted words in the book. Take your time and consider each part as you go, and your efforts will be well repaid.

 

At times you might be excused for thinking this is a book that often states the bleedin’ obvious, though I’m sure most people will find many surprises in here too. But as you progress you will realise that all these small obvious things are being placed into a much bigger context – one that tries to describe the complex workings of trust and cooperation (and defection) in society.

Most of the examples within the book are assessed from an intentionally external, disinterested, perspective. Someone cooperates when they go along with the expected behaviour of a particular group, whether that group is a family or a gang of criminals. Someone defects when they choose to behave contrary to the group expectation. Since we are all part of many different groups, sometimes it is necessary to defect from one if we want to cooperate with another.

The author describes four types of pressures that influence our tendency to cooperate or defect: moral pressures (what we believe is right and wrong), reputational pressures (how we appear to others of our group), institutional pressures (laws and codified customs), and security pressures (locks and audits etc.). The interplay of these pressures is not always obvious. Examples are given of how changes to reputation and institution pressures can negatively impact the effects of moral pressures, and so on.

 

Rabbits - Can I trust you?The first parts of the book go into the evolution and history of trust and cooperation. This part tries to show how it was that we came be behave toward one another as we do. There are lots of examples, and many references to experiments that analyse the way people choose to cooperate or defect. Most of the first half of the main text is directed at individuals. It shows how the various pressures to cooperate, and changing sizes of groups, can result in unexpected and often not entirely rational behaviour.

The book moves on to organisations and corporations and shows that the same pressures exist, but highlights the different ways they interact. Traditional free-market concepts can become distorted when the operation of the corporation is no longer transparent to the wider market. Large corporations and groups can even influence law such that the “group norm” becomes something that favours themselves. Corporations can grow so large that it can significantly damage society to let them fail. And much more. Each element of the author’s presentation seems outwardly simple, but brought together in this way they form a very complex picture … but they also begin to shed some light on the society that has grown up around us.

Here is a cute, and apt, quote from one of the notes attached to the chapter about corporations: “In general, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. Sometimes you’re the product even if you are paying for it.” (The subject at the time was corporations like Facebook and Google.) Things change when something becomes “free” because the corporation can make money indirectly, in particular your ability to influence that corporation may be reduced because you are no longer the customer.

Some of the chapters through the middle of the main text do get a bit heavy-going, there seems to be less given as good/interesting examples of what he means. This could be because much of this area covers topics closer to the author’s usual ground, so he feels less need to be expansive in his justifications because a lot has been covered in previous books and in his blog. (Or maybe it is my own bias showing here.)

Goanna and MagpieThe latter part of the book tries to bring all the previous examples together as a whole. The author summarises his conclusions in a set of general guidelines on how societal pressures should be managed to produce the most desirable results. He reiterates that perfection is neither feasible nor desirable, that defectors from the norm do have their place in a healthy society, the goal is to keep the level of defection down to an acceptable minimum.

Some of the later chapters start to paint a fairly bleak picture, showing the power that global corporations are gaining and the potentially catastrophic effects that could happen if such organisations should “defect” from what society wants. But the last chapter attempts to present a more optimistic view, the author stating that he thinks we’re up to the challenge.

 

By about half-way through I was starting to see this book as something that Hari Seldon might have picked up as a starting place for his great work. Hari is a fictional character in Isaac Asimov’s famous “Foundation” series. In that series Hari created a science called psychohistory that allowed him to predict the future of humanity in probabilities. I can well imagine that many of the pressures that Bruce Schneier presents in this book could form the basis for the mathematical models of psychohistory. It’s relevant to note at this point that, in Asimov’s story, psychohistory was not just used for predicting the future, but also for manipulating that future.

 

On a practical note: I read the hard-cover edition. This edition is separated into three main parts; the main text (248 pages), the notes referenced by number from the main text (37 pages), and the references (60 pages). I found the notes section an invaluable part of the book and I would have preferred them as footnotes rather than end-notes; I ended up reading with two bookmarks so that I could quickly find the notes relevant to the section I was reading. The layout may work more practically in e-book editions if the links have been set-up appropriately.

 

About the author: Bruce Schneier.

Bruce Schneier has been involved in questions of security for many years, and from his first book in 1994 (Applied Cryptography), he has demonstrated an ability to make complex subjects easier to understand (yes, I have that first book on my shelf too). From those earlier, highly technical, stages of his career, Bruce grew to understand that security wasn’t just about the strength of the locks, the thickness of the bars on the window, or the effectiveness of an encryption algorithm. Security is a process. It is about the systems in which all the technical issues exist, about they way these systems are used, and the people that use them.

These days Bruce Schneier is considered a security guru by many people, and even those that may disagree with some of his views cannot deny that he is well read, well researched, and expresses carefully considered views. He is regularly quoted by others, and publishes a blog and a free monthly newsletter discussing security across a wide range of fields. You can find more at his website.

Of particular interest and relevance to any review of this book is the fact that Bruce Schneier, Ross Anderson and Alessandro Acquisti, organise the “Security and Human Behavior” conferences. These are interdisciplinary meetings that involve experts from a diverse range of fields, including: psychology, computer security, sociology, law, business, politics, anthropology, philosophy and more. It is easy to see that Bruce has drawn from all these fields in his research for “Liars and Outliers”. This book is not just one man’s recently inspired vision, this is the drawing together of information from many sources.

Thornbills

PS. In case it’s not obvious, other than the cover-image at the top, none of the photos above have anything to do with the book, they are just my usual inclusion – my idea of making the page look good :-).

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