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Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive Hardcover – February 14, 2012
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Q&A with Bruce Schneier, Author of Liars and Outliers
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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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. We can rely on those four societal pressures in varying mixes to mitigate problems like theft, terrorism, fraud, online harassment, and so on, but it would be foolish and dangerous to believe we can eradicate such problems completely. "There can be too much security," Schneier explains, because, at some point, constantly expanding security systems and policies will result in rapidly diminishing returns. Trying to eradicate every social pathology would bankrupt us and, worse yet, "too much security system pressure lands you in a police state," he correctly notes.
Despite these challenges, Schneier reminds us that there is cause for optimism. Humans adapt better to social change than they sometimes realize, usually by tweaking the four societal pressures Schneier identifies until a new balance emerges. While liars and outliers will always exist, society will march on.
You can read my longer review of Schneier's "Liars & Outliers" over at Forbes.
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. Schenier does this here and intertwines topics such as game theory, evolution, surveillance, existentialism and much more. Schneier's brilliance is that he is able to connect seemingly disparate dots around information security and society, and show how they are in truth tightly coupled.
In the book, Schneier makes note of those that don't follow the rules. He calls these people defectors, and these are the liars and outliers of the book. The book notes that everything is a trade-off, and these defectors are the ones that try to break the rules.
An overall theme of the book, in which Schneier touches and references sociology, psychology, economics, criminology, anthropology, game theory and much more, is that society can't function without trust. He writes that in our complex interconnect and global society, that we need a lot of trust.
Schneier makes frequent reference to Dunbar's number, which he first references in chapter 2. Dunbar's number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. It is generally in the area of 150. So when someone sees a person with 3,000 Facebook friends, something is clearly amiss.
In chapter 9 on institutional pressures, Schneier takes a very broad look at threats facing society today. One of the biggest perceived threats we have today is terrorism, and the book astutely notes that we can never ensure perfect security against terrorism.
If Schneier had his way, the TSA budget would be measured in the millions, not billions of dollars. He incisively observes that all the talk of terrorism as an existential threat to society is utter nonsense. As long as terrorism is rare enough (which it is), and most people survive (which they do), society will survive. He writes that while that observation is true, it is not politically viable for our leaders to come out and say that.
While the book is heavy on the people focus, Schneier also acknowledges that sometimes and for some people, the incentives to commit crimes are worth the risk. To deal with those, that is where security technologies come into play.
An interesting observation made in chapter 10 around technology is that sometimes the technological changes have absolutely nothing to do with the societal dilemma being secured. For example, he notes that between the ubiquity of keyboards and the tendency for teachers to focus on standardized tests, cursive is no longer being taught that much in schools. The result is that signatures are more likely to be either printed text is an illegible scrawl; making them easier to forge. Which in turns creates new security risks.
In the book Schneier makes scores of astute observations on how society functions around security. He notes in chapter 16 that we are currently in a period of history where technology is changing faster than it ever has. The worry is that if technology changes too fast, the attackers will be able to innovate so much faster than society can that the imbalance become even greater; with failures that negatively affect society.
In many of the examples in the book, Schneier paints a dark picture given the advantage that the attackers and defectors have. But he also notes that we are in a period of history where the ability for large-scale cooperation is greater than it has ever been before. On that topic, he refers to the book The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler where he writes that the Internet can and has enabled cooperation on a scale never before seen. And that politics, backed by science, is ready to embrace this new cooperation.
On the lighter side, in chapter 17, Schneier notes that Mussolini didn't make the trains run on time; he just made it illegal to complain about them.
Schneier notes at the end of the book that its lesson isn't that defectors will inevitably ruin everything for everyone. Rather that we as a society need to manage societal pressure to ensure that they don't.
Liars and Outliers is an absolutely fascinating and groundbreaking book. In this election year where the candidates attempt to make sweeping simplistic promises to fix complex problems, Schneier simply answers that in our complex society, there are no simple answers.
In Applied Cryptography Bruce Schneier demonstrated he was quite the smart guy. In Liars and Outliers, he shows he is even smarter than most of us first thought.