"Schneier on Security;" A Judge’s Son Builds a Reputation of Cryptic Fame

By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
February 9, 2009

BROOKLYN -- Americans living in the age of ultra-security have been subjected to a massive number of small accommodations in the name of the "War on Terror."

Although most people have become accustomed to not bringing bottles of water on airplanes, there exists some cynicism about the effectiveness of our new security measures and how they relate to our day-to-day lives.

However, it takes an experienced security analyst like Brooklyn's Bruce Schneier to understand the connections between the face of national security that we all can see, and the facts and technology behind it.

"So when does it end? The terrorists invented a particular tactic, and you're defending against it. But you're playing a game you can't win," Schneier said in a past interview. "You ban guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. You ban small blades and knitting needles, and they hide explosives in their shoes. You screen shoes, so they invent a liquid explosive. You restrict liquids, and they're going to do something else. The terrorists are going to look at what you're confiscating, and they're going to design a plot to bypass your security."

Schneier believes, to put it bluntly, that airport security is wasting your time checking your shoes, said his father, Martin Schneier, a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge.

"He's a mathematics guy, and he's also a great writer," Justice Schneier said, describing his son's common-sense approach to modern security. "His forte is taking these concepts and bringing them down to everyday language."

Bruce Schneier grew up with his father in Flatbush, attending P.S. 139 and Hunter High School before going to the University of Rochester in Upstate New York.

After leaving his job with the U.S. Navy, Schneier wrote his first book, "Applied Cryptography," published in 1996.

"It was the right book at the right time," he said, humbly. The book became a bestseller and was translated into several languages, and is still a popular reference book on cryptography. That success set Schneier on the path he still follows today.

He is an experienced writer who is published in dozens of news sources and has a column in Wired; he is frequently invited to speak at panels and forums on security technology and he is British Telecommunications' chief security technology officer (his company, Counterpane Internet Security Inc., was bought by BT in 2006).

When the Eagle caught up with him last week, he had just returned from a security roundtable in Spain, had been in Washington, D.C. for a seminar about counter-terrorism polices in the Obama administration the week before, and was gearing up to go to India for another conference this week. "I'm very proud of Bruce, I couldn't be more proud of him," Justice Schneier said about his son's success.

"He always had a fascination with numbers," he said. "When he was young, he would see how far he could count, and he would write it out on a piece of paper, trying to get to a million... he was obsessed with mathematics and numerology."

Although Justice Schneier doesn't consider his own work in the Brooklyn Supreme Court to be overtly connected to his son's achievements, he said there are some parallels.

"My level is local; we're civil," Justice Schneier said. "But we do protect property, and more importantly, privacy, like Bruce does. People have rights that we defend in court, like their medical records and other personal data that should be protected."

"We both have similar philosophies -- about privacy, police proliferation and civil rights," Bruce Schneier said. "When I was a kid, my father was an attorney, and I knew I didn't want to be that. But I was inspired by the rhetoric, writing, logic and arguments" of the law.

"We're from different generations, but with very similar experiences... these days I end up dealing with court attorneys quite a bit," he said, mentioning his experiences testifying before U.S. Congress and advising law-makers on briefs about privacy rights.

Schneier is also well-known for coining the phrase "security is theater" to describe how security countermeasures, specifically at airports, provide the feeling of improved security without actually making people safer.

Although he started out specializing in computers and cryptography, his perspectives on terrorist activity have built his reputation.

Like the logic of the "attack trees" that he developed -- conceptual diagrams that illustrate every possible pattern through which a virus can attack a computer program -- Schneier also analyzes systems like homeland security and can predict the patterns that a terrorist might use to break through that system.

"My career is an endless series of generalizations," Schneier told the Eagle. "First I was just working with codes, security and cryptography. But to do that, you need good computers, and I got involved with computer security."

He explained that he became involved in hardware with the advance of technology. As he continues to follow technological trends, he has branched off into specialties like security economics and security psychology.

"I'm kind of a meta-meta-meta-meta-guy," he joked.

earlier story: Q&A With Bruce Schneier
later story: "We Focus on Defending Against Tactics Rather than Threat"
back to News and Interviews

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..