REVIEW: Bruce Schneier, Liars and Outliers: …

Chapter one is what would ordinarily constitute an introduction or preface to the book. Schneier states that the book is about trust: the trust that we need to operate as a society. In these terms, trust is the confidence we can have that other people will reliably behave in certain ways, and not in others. In any group, there is a desire in having people cooperate and act in the interest of all the members of the group. In all individuals, there is a possibility that they will defect and act against the interests of the group, either for their own competing interest, or simply in opposition to the group. (The author notes that defection is not always negative: positive social change is generally driven by defectors.) Actually, the text may be more about social engineering, because Schneier does a very comprehensive job of exploring how confident we can be about trust, and they ways we can increase (and sometimes inadvertently decrease) that reliability.

Part I explores the background of trust, in both the hard and soft sciences. Chapter two looks at biology and game theory for the basics. Chapter three will be familiar to those who have studied sociobiology, or other evolutionary perspectives on behaviour. A historical view of sociology and scaling makes up chapter four. Chapter five returns to game theory to examine conflict and societal dilemmas.

Schneier says that part II develops a model of trust. This may not be evident at a cursory reading: the model consists of moral pressures, reputational pressures, institutional pressures, and security systems, and the author is very careful to explain each part in chapters seven through ten: so careful that it is sometimes hard to follow the structure of the arguments.

Part III applies the model to the real world, examining competing interests, organizations, corporations, and institutions. The relative utility of the four parts of the model is analyzed in respect to different scales (sizes and complexities) of society. The author also notes, in a number of places, that distrust, and therefore excessive institutional pressures or security systems, is very expensive for individuals and society as a whole.

Part IV reviews the ways societal pressures fail, with particular emphasis on technology, and information technology. Schneier discusses situations where carelessly chosen institutional pressures can create the opposite of the effect intended.

The author lists, and proposes, a number of additional models. There are Ostrom’s rules for managing commons (a model for self-regulating societies), Dunbar’s numbers, and other existing structures. But Schneier has also created a categorization of reasons for defection, a new set of security control types, a set of principles for designing effective societal pressures, and an array of the relation between these control types and his trust model. Not all of them are perfect. His list of control types has gaps and ambiguities (but then, so does the existing military/governmental catalogue). In his figure of the feedback loops in societal pressures, it is difficult to find a distinction between “side effects” and “unintended consequences.” However, despite minor problems, all of these paradigms can be useful in reviewing both the human factors in security systems, and in public policy.

Schneier writes as well as he always does, and his research is extensive. In part one, possibly too extensive. A great many studies and results are mentioned, but few are examined in any depth. This does not help the central thrust of the book. After all, eventually Schneier wants to talk about the technology of trust, what works, and what doesn’t. In laying the basic foundation, the question of the far historical origin of altruism may be of academic philosophical interest, but that does not necessarily translate into an understanding of current moral mechanisms. It may be that God intended us to be altruistic, and therefore gave us an ethical code to shape our behaviour. Or, it may be that random mutation produced entities that acted altruistically and more of them survived than did others, so the population created expectations and laws to encourage that behaviour, and God to explain and enforce it. But trying to explore which of those (and many other variant) options might be right only muddies the understanding of what options actually help us form a secure society today.

Schneier has, as with Beyond Fear (cf. BKBYNDFR.RVW) and Secrets and Lies (cf. BKSECLIE.RVW), not only made a useful addition to the security literature, but created something of value to those involved with public policy, and a fascinating philosophical tome for the general public. Security professionals can use a number of the models to assess controls in security systems, with a view to what will work, what won’t (and what areas are just too expensive to protect). Public policy will benefit from examination of which formal structures are likely to have a desired effect. (As I am finishing this review the debate over SOPA and PIPA is going on: measures unlikely to protect intellectual property in any meaningful way, and guaranteed to have enormous adverse effects.) And Schneier has brought together a wealth of ideas and research in the fields of trust and society, with his usual clarity and readability.

Categories: Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.