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Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive Hardcover – February 14, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

Q&A with Bruce Schneier, Author of Liars and Outliers

Bruce Schneier, Author
In your book, Liars and Outliers, you write, "Trust and cooperation are the first problems we had to solve before we could become a social species--but in the 21st century, they have become the most important problems we need to solve again." What do you mean by trust?
That is the right question to ask, since there are many different definitions of trust floating around. The trust I am writing about isn't personal, it's societal. By my definition, when we trust a person, an institution, or a system, we trust they will behave as we expect them to. It's more consistency or predictability than intimacy. And if you think about it, this is exactly the sort of trust our complex society runs on. I trust airline pilots, hotel clerks, ATMs, restaurant kitchens, and the company that built the computer I'm writing these answers on.

What makes people trustworthy?
That's the key question the book tackles. Most people are naturally trustworthy, but some are not. There are hotel clerks who will steal your credit card information. There are ATMs that have been hacked by criminals. Some restaurant kitchens serve tainted food. There was even an airline pilot who deliberately crashed his Boeing 767 into the Atlantic Ocean in 1999. Given that there are people who are naturally inclined to be untrustworthy, how does society keep their damage to a minimum? We use what I call societal pressures: morals and reputation are two, laws are another, and security systems are a fourth. Basically, it's all coercion. We coerce people into behaving in a trustworthy manner because society will fall apart if they don't.

You introduce the idea of defectors--those who don't follow "the rules." What are defectors?
One of the central metaphors of the book is the Prisoner's Dilemma, which sets up the conflict between the interests of a group and the interests of individuals within the group. Cooperating--or acting in a trustworthy manner--sometimes means putting group interest ahead of individual interest. Defecting means acting in one's self-interest as opposed to the group interest. To put it in concrete terms: we are collectively better off if no one steals, but I am individually better off if I steal other people's stuff. But if everyone did that, society would collapse. So we need societal pressures to induce cooperation--to prevent people from stealing.

There are two basic types of defectors. In this example, the first are people who know stealing is wrong, but steal anyway. The second are people who believe that, in some circumstances, stealing is right. Think of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Or Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, who stole to feed his starving family.

Why are some defectors good for society?
Cooperators are people who follow the formal or informal rules of society. Defectors are people who, for whatever reason, break the rules. That definition says nothing about the absolute morality of the society or its rules. When society is in the wrong, it's defectors who are in the vanguard for change. So it was defectors who helped escaped slaves in the antebellum American South. It's defectors who are agitating to overthrow repressive regimes in the Middle East. And it's defectors who are fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement. Without defectors, society stagnates.

What major news stories of the past decade were triggered by failed trust? How can we prevent these failures in the future?
The story I had in most in mind while writing the book was the global financial crisis of a few years ago, where a handful of people cheated the system to their own advantage. Those were particularly newsworthy defectors; but if you start looking, you can see defectors and the effects of their defection everywhere: in corrupt politicians, special interests subverting the tax system, file sharers downloading music and movies without paying for them, and so on. The key characteristic is a situation where the group interest is in opposition to someone's self-interest, and people have been permitted to follow their own self-interest to the greater harm of the group.

What makes Liars and Outliers so relevant in today's society?
As our systems--whether social systems like Facebook or political systems like Congress--get more complex, the destructive potential of defectors becomes greater. To use another term from the book, the scope of defection increases with more technology. This means that the societal pressures we traditionally put in place to limit defections no longer work, and we need to rethink security. It's easy to see this in terms of terrorism: one of the reasons terrorists are so scary today is that they can do more damage to society than the terrorists of 20 years ago could--and future technological developments will make the terrorists of 20 years from now scarier still.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading Liars and Outliers?
I can do no better than quote from the first chapter: "This book represents my attempt to develop a full-fledged theory of coercion and how it enables compliance and trust within groups. My goal is to rephrase some of those questions and provide a new framework for analysis. I offer new perspectives, and a broader spectrum of what's possible. Perspectives frame thinking, and sometimes asking new questions is the catalyst to greater understanding. It’s my hope that this book can give people an illuminating new framework with which to help understand the world."


"One of the best books I've read this year is by a security technologist, Bruce Schneier. In Liars and Outliers, he sets out to investigate how trust works in society and in business, how it is betrayed and the degree to which technology changes all of that, for the better or the worse. Schneier absolutely understands how profoundly trust oils the wheels of business and of daily life." (Margaret Heffernan, CBS MoneyWatch)

"This book will appeal not only to customers interested in computer security but also on the idea of security and trust as a whole in society." (The Bookseller, 16th December 2011)

"This book should be read by anyone in a leadership role, whether they're in the corporate or political sphere... an easy read and the ideas and thoughts are profound." (Naked Security, February 2012)

"By concentrating on the human angle and packing the book with real world examples he has successfully stretched its appeal outside that of the security specialist to the more general reader." (E & T Magazine, March 2012)


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (February 14, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1118143302
  • ISBN-13: 978-1118143308
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (118 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #167,846 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist, called a "security guru" by The Economist. He is the author of 12 books -- including "Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World" -- as well as hundreds of articles, essays, and academic papers. His influential newsletter "Crypto-Gram" and blog "Schneier on Security" are read by over 250,000 people. Schneier is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, a program fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and an Advisory Board member of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He is also the Chief Technology Officer of Resilient Systems, Inc.

Customer Reviews

The book is fun to read, too.
Bruce Schneier's latest book, Liars and Outliers, is a solid evaluation of trust in society.
John Garrison
Overall I really enjoyed the book it was a very easy read and I recommend it.
Steven Isaacson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Adam Thierer on February 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover
How does society function when you know you can't possibly trust everyone in it? That's the question at the heart of Bruce Schneier's enlightening new book, "Liars and Outliers." There is no single or simple answer, Schneier explains. Instead, four "societal pressures" combine to help create and preserve trust within society. Those pressures include: (1) Moral pressures; (2) Reputational pressures; (3) Institutional pressures; and (4) Security systems. By "dialing in" these societal pressures in varying degrees, trust is generated over time within groups.

Of course, these societal pressures also fail on occasion, Schneier notes. He explores a host of scenarios -- in organizations, corporations, and governments -- when trust breaks down because defectors seek to evade the norms and rules the society lives by. These defectors are the "liars and outliers" in Schneier's narrative and his book is an attempt to explain the complex array of incentives and trade-offs that are at work and which lead some humans to "game" systems or evade the norms and rules others follow.

Indeed, Schneier's book serves as an excellent primer on game theory as he walks readers through complex scenarios such as prisoner's dilemma, the hawk-dove game, the free-rider problem, the bad apple effect, principle-agent problems, the game of chicken, race to the bottom, capture theory, and more. These problems are all quite familiar to economists, psychologists, and political scientists, who have spent their lives attempting to work through these scenarios. Schneier has provided a great service here by making game theory more accessible to the masses and given it practical application to a host of real-world issues.

The most essential lesson Schneier teaches us is that perfect security is an illusion.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Ben Rothke on February 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover
It is said that the song Wipe Out launched a generation of drummers. In the world of information security, the classic Applied Cryptography: Protocols, Algorithms, and Source Code in C by Bruce Schenier may have been the book that launched a generation of new cryptographers.

Schenier latest work of art is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. For those that are looking for a follow-up to Applied Cryptography, this it is not. In fact, it is hard to classify this as an information security title and in fact the book is marked for the current affairs / sociology section. Whatever section this book ultimately falls in, the reader will find that Schneier is one of the most original thinkers around.

In Applied Cryptography Schneier dealt with the pristine world of mathematical cryptography where aspects of pure mathematics could be demonstrably proven. For example, non-repudiation is absolutely provable.

In Liars and Outliers, Schneier moves from the pristine world of mathematics into the muddy world of human trust. Non-repudiation is no longer an absolute in a world where a Windows kernel can be compromised and end-users can be victims of social engineering.

The book addresses the fundamental question of how does society function when you can't trust everyone. Schneier notes that nothing in society works without trust. It's the foundation of communities, commerce, democracy, in truth - everything. And Schneier deals extensively with social and moral pressures that effect trust.

Liars and Outliers is very similar to books Umberto Eco, that have a Renaissance feel to them; bringing myriad and diverse topics together.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Teresa Merklin on February 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive" is a departure from Bruce Schneier, who is widely regarded for his cryptography books and as a highly respected computer security commentator. Moving away from the hard core mathematics required for effective modern cryptography, in his latest offering Schneier constructs a framework for understanding trust and the various systemic forces that act upon it.

This innovative systems perspective of trust as it relates to security in general represents a profound breakthrough which should have considerable influence on discussions and debate within the security community. The detailed analysis of how pressures, incentives, and penalties influence individuals and organizations is extremely useful for understanding potential and probable results of various policy and control initiatives.

Schneier also provides an excellent explanation for why criminal organizations are inherently more agile and adaptable than business and law enforcement agencies. This inherent agility is very apparent in computer and network security where the pace of new exploits and attack vectors at times seems to overwhelm traditional defense mechanisms.

The conclusions drawn in this book describe the importance of trust and how it will not diminish over time in the future. Schneier deftly summarizes how the trust framework must be well understood when designing and implementing societal pressures and how "perfect security" is an absolute illusion. While no specific policy recommendations are offered, this book should provide foundational knowledge for fueling effective and informed debate in the security arena.
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