Schneier’s Outliers: A Book Review

Bruce Schneier and I have satisfied a market need of journalists for a number of years; namely relatively informed people willing to go on the record with opposing views about the efficacy of TSA activities. My recent Wall Street Journal piece has led some to wonder how far apart Bruce and I are on TSA security issues. We generally agree on principles and strategy but diverge on issues that are influenced by operational or intelligence considerations, about which Bruce would have no reason to be aware. Bruce might say that I hide behind the secrecy shield and I might wish to retort that just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it is stupid. But enough, there is more to security than checkpoints.

I think the most important security issues going forward center around identity and trust. Before knowing I would soon encounter Bruce again in the media, I bought and read his new book Liars & Outliers and it is a must-read book for people looking forward into our security future and thinking about where this all leads. For my colleagues inside the government working the various identity management, security clearance, and risk-based- security issues, L&O should be required reading.

At TSA, the most troublesome programs were the ones where we had to assign risk scores to passengers and our own or others’ employees. Whom do you trust? How do you know? Does the absence of a criminal record have any bearing on whether the person might be susceptible (witting or not) to al Qaeda recruitment? Was the airport employee who had a telephone call logged with the subject of an active FBI terrorism investigation a terror risk? Should we pull his access credential on that basis and make him unemployable in the aviation industry? How would it sound if we didn’t pull the credential and he did something; “you mean to tell me that TSA knew that this person was directly connected to the subject of an FBI terror investigation and you let him maintain access to aircraft?” The popular Registered Traveler (RT) program was premised on the trustworthiness of frequent flyers solely on the basis that they were not watch listed or illegally in the country. As al Qaeda operatives by the hundreds qualified for RT, I stopped TSA from accepting money for what can only be called security theatrical “background checks” and the program folded. Yet is has to be that some flyers are of less terror risk than others. How to think about this problem?

Bruce Schneier’s Liars & Outliers sets the context for all the millions of individual trust issues that come up in daily life as well as all over the public policy and business sectors. L&O describes a framework for us to think logically about the very nature of trust in society, indeed the atomic elements of society itself. Schneier illustrates scenarios of the interdependence of the various societal elements (“moral, social, economic, and political”) with trust and security. He identifies that our institutions are drawn to factors that can be measured and recorded, better perhaps for a paper trail than lasting indicators of trust.

L&O is fresh thinking about live fire issues of today as well as moral issues that are ahead. Whatever your policy bent, this book will help you. Trust me on this, you don’t have to buy everything Bruce says about TSA to read this book, take it to work, put it down on the table and say, “this is brilliant stuff.”

Categories: Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.