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Book Review: Liars and Outliers 68

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
First time accepted submitter benrothke writes "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 Schneier may have been the book that launched a generation of new cryptographers. Schneier's 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." Keep reading for the rest of Ben's review.
Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive
author Bruce Schneier
pages 384
publisher Wiley
rating 10/10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 978-1118143308
summary Brilliant book on trust and society, and it complex interrelation
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 cant trust everyone. Schneier notes that nothing in society works without trust. Its 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 by Umberto Eco, that have a Renaissance feel to them; bringing myriad and diverse topics together. Schneier 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. Dunbars 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.

Ben Rothke is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Book Review: Liars and Outliers

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  • by JeanCroix (99825) on Wednesday February 22, 2012 @05:53PM (#39130259) Journal

    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.

    A couple related sentences seem to have collided here...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 22, 2012 @06:23PM (#39130581)

    Common Law America used to have quite a bit more social trust. And people used to live with more integrity.

    Of course, we had better social enforcement. Rude curs would be shunned as "no-account trash", or dueled if they continued to deliberately give offense.

    Being free, any citizen was allowed to reject the law and opt not to be held accountable to it. Of course, they were also not protected by the law either, and if these "outlaws" began encroaching against society (robbing stages, kidnapping and the like) they had only the protections of natural law (kill or be killed, the law of the wild) to protect them. Society's members were free to contribute to a large bounty and hunt them down like rabbits.

    It's these social costs for giving offenses that prevented everyone from doing that. While I can't agree with the puritanical basis in whole, most of those social costs have now been removed from our society. With the penalties gone, acting out and giving offense has become prevalent. And trust correspondingly takes a hit when we no longer concern ourselves with whether we've transgressed against another person, and merely worry about whether we've transgressed against the State and are liable for punishment by it.

The meta-Turing test counts a thing as intelligent if it seeks to devise and apply Turing tests to objects of its own creation. -- Lew Mammel, Jr.

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