Book Review: Schneier on Security

I had long ago listened to Schneier on TED and his expose on the fallacy of airport security, and security in general. But this book made me realize his activism is not limited to airport security — he talks on a broad range of topics including the privacy, government transparency (where it kinda didn’t sit well with me) and his advocacy around the how bad a job the US government in general, and organizations such as FBI, CIA and TSA in specific with respect to protecting its citizens. Here I do want to make a point — while his concepts are certainly global, his inferences are time and again to the Americans — whether due to the fact that most of the readers would anyways be Americans, or he views the world as “Americans and others”, I am not sure. Overall it is a decent read, but if I were to summarize his points into few bullet points, they are as follows:

  1. Focus on intelligence around terrorism, don’t waste time and money on terror tactics
  2. Draw a line between targeted surveillance (hence the importance of intelligence) than wholesale surveillance (such as fingerprinting and profiling the ~500 million that cross the US borders every year, including Americans)
  3. Security is a trade off. There is no absolute security, same way as there is no absolute privacy.
  4. Security always comes at a cost. So the question shouldn’t be “does removing my shoes and throwing the liquids away make me more secure?“, instead it is “does the system of removing shoes and banning liquids worth the cost in dollars and convenience?
  5. Security is a skill — Organizations like CIA should focus on developing intelligence around terrorism, and get better at responding to them, rather than mindlessly scan the private lives of billions of people.
  6. Security is a feeling — There’s feeling secure and there’s being secure. Much of what is being done today in US is to satisfy the feeling (hence the term security theater, which he is renowned for)

I agree with most of his views, however he tends to push his ideals-based agenda, such as civil liberties too much — I would simply limit my loyalty to what makes sense, rather than focus on any isms.

At the end of reading this book (in reality, nothing but a collection of articles), I did some basic googling to find out how much the government is spending on CIA, FBI* and TSA combined — it is over $100 billion. This translates to about $330 per citizen (assuming 300m of them). So it is reductionist to conclude that $330 per person is worthwhile spend, even for the feeling of security — since the real cost goes much more than this — loss of convenience, liberties and most importantly, sense.

PS: I am not sure people do in general, but when I read books, there’s usually the mental image of the author in the back of your mind — sometimes imagining that may be they were talking or reading it out to you. While reading this book, for some bizarre reason, my mind could only picture Tom Friedman in my mind.

*FBI does more than contributing to counter terrorism. They work on civil cases as well.

Categories: Schneier on Security, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.