Kari's Reviews > Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier
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Sep 15, 2011

really liked it
Read from December 06 to 31, 2012

One of the main reasons I enjoy reading Schneier's take on security is that he has become very technology-agnostic and has started to borrow tools from economics to solve security problems. Secrets and Lies was still very much about information security but by the middle of Beyond Fear Schenier had realized that security is more about society than just technology. In Liars and Outliers, Schneier builds a multi-disciplinary framework that centers on society and the trust within. In this model, security systems are just a way to scale trust in a more globalized world - and important aspect, but by far not the only one.

The book offers two refreshing takes on security and trust. Firstly, as Schenier has often pointed out, security is both a process and a trade-off. The other is that it infeasible and impossible to totally evade risks. This is a welcome point of view against the more common view of of looking at security as a purely technlogical system, a machine that can be perfected. Humans, even as an aggregate society, are much softer and more complex, and have evolutionary baggage that affect our ability to make rational decisions. One of the problems is that in a world of competing interests, it's not easy to strike a balance.

In Liars and Outliers, Schneier uses human cooperation (as understood by economics) as the start point for his analysis. Trust and security emerge from the need to make cooperation work and do not exist in isolation. This way, he is able to avoid the trap of suboptimization of the problems presented in the book. The favorite example for Schenier seems to be air travel, not only because few of the changes after 9/11 and other threats have actually made anyone safe and because it involves many of the psychological biases that make humans bad at assessing risk. As such, this is a security researcher's take on behavioral economics and the parallels with, for example, Thaler & Sunstein's Nudge or Akerlof's Animal Spirits are notable. To see what happens when the trust mechanisms break, one can read books like Bakan's The Corporation or any book on the causes of the recent financial crisis.

The way I interpreted Schenier's main message is that the reason trust and security break in today's world is that Internet and globalization in general have caused unprecented "security gap" and the society has not yet been able to respond to the new environment. However, the threat is not that the attackers (or defectors) will keep the upper hand but that the society will make unwise decisions in effort to narrow the gap. Instead of focusing on liquids and underwear on a plane, the efforts should be directed at intelligence, investigation and emergency response instead. As a reader of Schenier's blog, this is a view that he often stresses but I think he doesn't do as good job in this book. He does, however, explain why the practice of focusing on the last way of attack as way of making sure that at least that specific attack never happens is so natural for any organization (or, agent) who values its own survival.

Another interesting part in the book was about how private corporations are taking over traditional institutions and how that will affect society. He sees many dangers when profit-oriented companies dictate the rules instead of the society deciding on them. A good example of this is Facebook, which has quickly become an institution in our society. It's becoming harder and harder not to be part of that social network and yet the users have very little to say about how their data is used or what a "Like" means in the system.

At its core, the book is mostly about decision making and the society. Coming from decision making and behavioral economics background, there was not that much new for me in this book. However, his arguments on how there will always be defectors in any society, there will always be murders and theft, and that it's society's role to set the level of defection we're comfortable is something I very much agree with. While this might sound a bit pessimistic, it's just a fact of life, and Schneier makes a good case at the end of the book how a functioning society needs outliers and defectors.

This is not, however, Schneier's best book. I do recommend reading Liars & Outliers, but it's main challenge is that it's an introductory text (it's easily approachable for any reader) written in an academic tone. The book stays very general and its only concrete new offering is a model to assess societal dilemmas. I believe this is because unlike in previous books, here Schneier isn't the resident guru of the topic matter at hand. The reason I really want to like this book is that I would welcome other people to take such a multi-disciplinary view on the society. The challenges our societies face in the brave new world of globalization are huge and broader takes on the issues at hand are needed. Schneier's take on what part trust plays in the society is exactly that.
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