Liars and Outliers Book Review

I read this book thanks to a wonderful suggestion from one of my regular readers. Liars and Outliers is a book written by Bruce Schneier, a security expert who also has an excellent blog Schneier on Security.

Overall, I found Liars and Outliers to be a fun read about how to analyze trust. I found the book particularly interesting because Schneier refers to many game theory models. I highly recommend the book to anyone that wants to see how game theory models can be applied to thinking about the area of security.

The book was a pleasant read, and I finished it in a couple of weeks, reading a couple of chapters each night. While Schneier’s book is philosophical and full of ideas, numerous real-world examples and well-organized writing make the book a pleasurable read.

Here are 4 things I enjoyed about Liars and Outliers.

1. Game theory examples!

Like I said above, the book refers to game theory models quite frequently which was a delight to read.

Here are just a few of the models that are mentioned in the book:

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Game of chicken, Hawk-Dove game, Red Queen effect, Ultimatum game, Trust game, herd immunity, tragedy of the commons

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the most prominent example in the book and it’s used as a model for how trust can fall apart in society. Specifically, if there are enough defectors, it is hard for trust to develop and for society to flourish. Much of the problem is figuring out how to beat the Prisoner’s dilemma and encourage cooperation through various influences.

So I was thrilled to see how game theory fits in with a security context, and I think you’ll enjoy this aspect as well.

2. Rigor of discussion

The main text is about 240 pages long, and it’s packed with information. Case in point: the references section is more than 50 pages long! That should give you some idea about how much research is referenced in the book.

Schneier does an incredible job of making the research accessible and fun to read.

There is also an enjoyable “Notes” section that is about 30 pages. These are points that did not make it into the main text, but they are useful elaborations or side points.

My reading tip is to make sure you read the “Notes” section as you read each chapter because these supplementary comments are quite interesting.

3. Concrete, fun stories

The book uses economic, political, philosophical, and technological examples to illustrate its ideas. This means you’ll end up learning a decent amount of fun knowledge along the way.

For example, one of the topics discussed is the problem of guests stealing hotel towels. Hotels try to discourage stealing by putting their logos or names. But this can occasionally have the opposite effect: the logos turn the towels into a nice souvenir, and theft can rise.

A possible solution reported by one Hawaii hotel is to implant washable computer chips into the towels. This allows them to monitor towels, and it resulted in a reduction of losing 4,000 towels monthly to 750 towels, a savings of $16,000. That’s pretty neat, and could be effective if the RFID tags are not too expensive.

The book is full of similar examples and stories which are interesting and fun to read.

4. Lots of tables and diagrams

I’m a visual learner and I love it when information is organized into tables or diagrams.

What is particularly interesting in this book is how the model of trust is developed. Schneier explains each security problem in terms of a Prisoner’s dilemma: there are certain group interests and cooperative norms that compete against individual interests and corresponding defections.

The key question is how to encourage cooperation against the individual defections. Schneier points out 4 main forces that encourage cooperation: moral pressures, reputational pressures, institutional guidelines, and security.

Chapter by chapter these ideas are fleshed out. But throughout the book, the security problems are illustrated in a table that highlights each of these points. This framework allowed me to see how each problem was different, and why certain pressures work in some problems but not in others.

This framework also provides the reader a systematic way to analyze security problems. It’s important to understand the problem to understand why people are cheating and to figure out the best remedy.

I highly recommend you read this book for yourself to understand the role of trust in your life or business.

You can read several excerpts and order signed copies of the book directly from Bruce Schneier’s site here: author page for book.

It’s also available at Amazon and fine bookstores everywhere.—As a closing note, I want to thank Wiley publishing for sending a review copy of the book. It was a fun read and made me think about security in a different way.

Categories: Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.