Did I Actually Say That?

I’m quoted (also here) as using this analogy to explain how IT companies will be damaged by the news that they’ve been collaborating with the NSA:

“How would it be if your doctor put rat poison in your medicine? Highly damaging,” said Bruce Schneier, a US computer security expert.

Not the most eloquent I’ve been recently. Clearly I need to relax.

Posted on September 12, 2013 at 1:34 PM37 Comments


William September 12, 2013 1:48 PM

This analogy is troubling because many doctors do prescribe warfarin as an anticoagulant, and it is also used as rat poison.

Herman September 12, 2013 1:51 PM

That is too funny, since rat poison is a medicine used to control ‘sticky blood’ in humans – a problem that seems to run in my family.

DavidS September 12, 2013 2:48 PM

That is just about correct. If prescribed correctly and transparently, the medicine is good. Hidden and denied it might as well be poison.

nowWeKnow September 12, 2013 3:05 PM

Bruce will have a mysterious heart attack, cause he didnt relax. He will also update his pgp keys after that date.
Dont give them excuses/ideas to take you out.

Waldo September 12, 2013 3:18 PM

You don’t need to relax Bruce. It’s a normal reaction to what’s happenening in this country. I think we all feel like this now.

z September 12, 2013 3:28 PM

Except the analogy works.

Well, sort of. It would work if you were seeing an assassin who sometimes is a genuine doctor, forcing you to wonder whether that pill he prescribed is a cure or poison.

Bruce September 12, 2013 3:31 PM

Not to mention Botox, which plenty of “doctors” prescribe willy nilly these days. It can have the effect of making someone always look surprised, which is probably appropriate considering what the Snowden revelations keep producing.

Alex September 12, 2013 3:48 PM

The rat poison / warfarin is a good analogy — It can be helpful when needed but is flat-out dangerous to be cramming down the throats of everyone.

Clive Robinson September 12, 2013 3:52 PM

@ Bruce,

Doctors write out scripts for leathal poisons by the dozen a day, because nearly all meds are poisons one way or another, and yes it’s not just warfrin thats rat poison…

Rats are actualy quite easy to poison as they don’t have a viable vomit reflex, unlike humans.

In fact the vomit reflex is over developed in humans it’s why when our brain gets confused between one sensory input and another it assumes we’ve been poisond and less than delightfully “up chuck” our last meal or two when amongst other things trave in a vehicle of some kind.

As for your need to relax, there is a saying “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy”, and dull has more than one meaning so “if you want to be the sharpest tool in the box” remember to schedual in a little “me time” for you and your loved ones…

T Benson September 12, 2013 3:59 PM

Don’t relax TOO much! Or we’ll slip into acceptance of this horrible way of life.

Thanks for speaking out for all of us! Call it as you see it.

Wordy Guy September 12, 2013 4:33 PM

Coumadin is not putting rat poison /in/ medicine; it is using rat poison /as/ medicine.

It is clear that what Bruce was trying to say and the analogy works.

Jennifer September 12, 2013 4:45 PM

It’s like a therapist documenting a series of your confessions, and forwarding them to the cops.

NobodySpecial September 12, 2013 5:33 PM

@Clive Robinson – an even better analogy then 😉

Intelligence agencies spy on carefully targeted specific threats to national security all the time, it’s when they indiscriminately do it to everyone that it becomes a risk.

LiefOfLiberty September 12, 2013 6:36 PM

I think the point is well made. One does not expect their physician to surreptitiously alter their medication to cause harm. It is more than the matter of harm it is the matter that the person you trust with your health is the one actively destroying it.

No, the time to relax is over. 🙂

John Campbell September 12, 2013 6:45 PM


In the effort to protect Freedom and Liberty, the USA’s NSA had to destroy them.

Somehow I don’t think ImpSec of Vorkosiverse fame (read Lois McMaster-Bujold’s stories!) could have gotten away with so much.

JT September 12, 2013 8:11 PM

That comment was very Linus of you. I’ve always enjoyed Torvalds’ directness and bluntness; and in many cases its exactly what the situation needs.

Sometimes a direct and brutally honest comment is what it takes for people to actually think something new that’s not already in their head.

So sure, relax… just dont stop preaching the truth!

Dirk Praet September 12, 2013 8:20 PM

@ Bruce

Clearly I need to relax.

May I advise some quality time at Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro ? I’m sure some well-known lawyer/blogger turned journalist would wholeheartedly welcome you at his mansion. “Utile dulci”, as the famous Roman poet Horace one said.

RJD September 12, 2013 9:00 PM

About that rat poison. I was on it at doctor’s order until really bad kidney bleeds nine years later. I hope that the NSA is not nearly so painful.

Kevin an Auditor September 12, 2013 9:59 PM


Good Sir;

As a man married to a (now) clinical psychologist since we were both undergrads, I urge you to consider your emotive “outburst” a symptom of your sanity responding to an ethical outrage.

Humans, and all their motives are not reduced to code, nor to the sterile language of academia.



rdm September 12, 2013 10:18 PM

I am particularly impressed with how they knew you were going to make this post, so long before today. Just think of the time that can be saved using this technique!

Buck September 12, 2013 11:05 PM


Seconded! (Not the personal bits, but about the trials & tribulations of being sane in a world ruled by the truly insane 😉

“The point is, you see,” said Ford, “that there is no point in driving yourself mad trying to stop yourself going mad. You might just as well give in and save your sanity for later.”

– Douglas Adams, “Life, the Universe and Everything” (1982)

Clive Robinson September 13, 2013 2:11 AM

@ Alyssa,

    What will be their Vitamin K ?

To quote some words from the pen of Lewis Carroll,

    The time has come, the Walrus said,
    to speak of many things.
    Of ships and shoes and sealing wax,
    of cabbages and kings.
    Of why the sea is boiling hot,
    and whether pigs have wings.

The “of cabbages and kings.” gives you the answer.

Cabbages give the antidote to the rat poison as,
Kings give the antidote to brigands and cut throats.

Lewis Carroll was the famous pen name of a Victorian mathmetician and logician [1] who in part gave us a means by which we could make sense of the world and also in part responsible for pointing out the problem with “pointers” when Alice talks to the White Knight, in “Through the looking glass”, long before neophyte programers ever vowed never to use them.

His work has influanced many people including The Bettles and Douglas Adams, and his “wonderland view” can be found in many places including Harry Potter books.

[1] http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Carroll

William Lee September 13, 2013 2:48 AM

I love it! But this isn’t just sick people getting tainted medication, this poisons healthy people just eating regularly.

A more apt analogy might be: Imagine the FDA requiring arsenic in every loaf of bread – but it wasn’t allowed to be listed in the ingredients.

Clive Robinson September 13, 2013 4:45 AM

@ William Lee,

    A more apt analogy might be: Imagine the FDA requiring arsenic in every loaf of bread – but it wasn’t allowed to be listed in the ingredients

That’s almost for real…

Look at the “Monsanto Exception” which gives them immunity against future litigation should their GM technology realy turn out to be “Frankenfurter” in nature and people develop and pass on genetic disorders.

Further look at the several hundred additives that don’t have to be listed in tabbaco products.

Or the fact “orange juice” can have nitric acid in it and not be listed because it’s a processing chemical not an end product addative. Oh and don’t what ever you do lookup the effects on the body of the processing agents for de-caff coffee –namely trichloroethane and methylene chloride– you might lose your taste for it.

Also consider the EPA and the water you drink where all sorts of heavy metal poisons, known carcniogens and organo phosphates and other nuro-toxins are allowed based on how they effect adults, not developing children or earlier developmental stages.

Winter September 13, 2013 7:11 AM

@Clive Robinson
“Also consider the EPA and the water you drink where all sorts of heavy metal poisons, known carcniogens and organo phosphates and other nuro-toxins are allowed based on how they effect adults, not developing children or earlier developmental stages.”

Basic thermodynamics tells us that the cost of removing pollutants will increase without bounds if their concentration drops. So, the line has to be drawn somewhere. Your distrust of the EPA or the USA parliament to draw that line at the “correct” point is probably justified. But every country has to draw the line at some concentration.

However, you should weight your risks wisely. There is that old story about the cholera outbreak in Peru:

A stark example of the importance of water disinfection is the cholera epidemic that began in Peru in 1991, and spread to 19 Latin American countries. Inadequate disinfection of municipal water supplies was a major factor contributing to the spread of the epidemic that caused more than one million illnesses and 12,000 deaths. During the outbreak, officials with the Pan American Health Organization reported that concerns about potential health risks from disinfection byproducts led municipalities and communities in the region to abandon chlorination. One official later wrote, “Rather than being abated by increase use of chlorination, the waterborne transmission of cholera was actually aided because of worries about chlorination byproducts.”

koen September 13, 2013 9:27 AM

Security is not about relaxing and the NSA stories are getting uglier by the day. You were only right to tell things as they are even if it sounds harsh for some ears.

Clive Robinson September 13, 2013 11:08 AM

@ Winter,

I remember Peru, mainly because of the accusations that the aid agencies were responsible for it spreading…

Every time I hear about water bourn polution or disease I think of Dr John Snow [1] and the little old lady that did not like the taste of the water from the local pump back in 1854 and died because of it which led to enquires establishing from the familes of another nine deaths that it was the Broad St pump that was the source of infection.

Sadly he was badly treated by the authorities who would not reject the “foul air” theory for various political reasons.

As for heavy metals and other similar acculamtive poisons disolved or suspended in water as far as I’m aware there is no real “safe limit” just some nominal fraction of the LD50. And as research continues more and more evidence emerges as to the dangers even at small fractions of the supposed “safe limits” of some places in part due to age but also in the wildly varying suceptability of people.

For instance floride in water, is an adative used for supposed medical benifit, and aluminium sulphate is added to improve water clarity. However it’s been shown that the Tea Bush is very sensitive to these, so somebody drinking “brick tea” can easily pass each and every day the “safe limit” set for aluminium and flouride…

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Snow_(physician)

Alex R. September 14, 2013 9:44 AM

I know I’m late to the party, but I think your comment was perfect. A very tiny dose of rat poison is therapeutic, while a large dose is dangerous (to our civil liberties.)

Phil September 15, 2013 12:43 AM

A somewhat more accurate analogy would be a doctor who, without telling you, put rat poison in your medicine. And when asked, he explained that he heard rats were getting into your medicine cabinet and he wanted to get rid of them without troubling you. So don’t worry.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.