A Hacker’s Mind—How the Elites Exploit the System

What does the computer world have to teach us about designing for resilience in other domains? Quite a lot, argues Bruce Schneier, in a new book that sees the security expert turn his gaze to the increasingly vulnerable financial, legal and political systems that underpin society.

“When most people look at a system, they focus on how it works,” writes Schneier, whose popular books and practical expertise have earned him a stellar reputation in the computer security field. “When security technologists look at the same system, they can’t help but focus on how it can be made to fail.”

Failure here does not mean malfunction, but rather the subversion of the system’s intended goal. An ordinary person sees an ATM as somewhere to withdraw cash. A hacker sees it as “just a computer with money inside.” The aim of A Hacker’s Mind is to show us how thinking like a hacker can help us re-evaluate modern problems of regulation and enforcement, and make sense of a world where rules increasingly feel made to be broken.

But first, we must update our understanding of what a hacker looks like. Even if the cliché of the lonely teenager cranking out code into the night ever held any truth, when it comes to finance and politics, hackers come dressed in business attire. Schneier argues that it is the rich and powerful who hack financial and legal systems, finding ways to avoid taxation or undermine regulations designed to protect the rest of society.

Seen through this lens, tax lawyers become “black hat” (malicious) hackers, poring over lines of regulation to find bugs and exploits that will profit their wealthy clients, such as the “Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich” tax avoidance strategy used by some of the world’s largest multinationals to squirrel away profits in tax havens.

A chapter on venture capital shows the hacking metaphor hard at work. Here Schneier focuses on multibillion-dollar investments made by SoftBank’s Vision Fund and others into persistently profitless gig economy firms like Uber and Deliveroo. He argues that the approach damages both markets and the labour force, and that instead of picking winners, this kind of VC strategy creates conditions where companies cannot lose, in a way “that would be called communism if the government did it.”

Schneier’s fixes for these problems borrow from the lexicon of computer security. The fixes range from “red teaming” new tax laws—employing tax lawyers to eliminate loopholes before legislation gets passed, in hacker speak to switch their black hats for white hats—to helping regulators react faster when existing governance regimes are subverted, giving authorities the ability to issue the equivalent of “patches” to the rules.

In one way, A Hacker’s Mind represents a twist on Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain series. The question is no longer “how do elites govern us?” but “how do elites succeed in evading our systems of governance?” Schneier describes a world in which “social and technical systems are evolving rapidly into battlefields of constant subversion and countersubversion,” and predicts a near future where this relentless undermining of trust has catastrophic results. It’s a hauntingly credible vision.

Computerisation has accelerated the pace and scale at which the wealthy can undermine the rules. Artificial intelligence may do much worse. Schneier invokes stock market flash crashes, as well as the distortion and fragmentation of public discourse by social media algorithms that silently tailor news feeds to individual bias, as portents of what is to come.

Humans are still better hackers than machines, and Schneier presents plenty of evidence to suggest that in the near future this will not change. For now, “while a world filled with AI hackers is still a science-fiction problem, it’s not a stupid science-fiction problem.” Schneier beseeches us to get our house in order before AI takes us to a point of no return.

In places, the hacking metaphor feels stretched thin. Schneier often bumps up against issues that feel both familiar and intractable: there’s exposition of the faults of the American legislative process that are neither new nor insightful. The metaphor only takes us so far, and Schneier is smart enough to realise that computer code and human-made law operate according to their own distinct logics. Yet occasionally the starkness and sheer bombast of his prose leave his analysis searching for a place to land.

With A Hacker’s Mind, Schneier joins other technology specialists who have turned their focus to problems in politics and markets—partly, one feels, out of exasperation at the failure of these structures to hold technological threats in check. Given the role of the computer paradigm in complicating corporate, legal and political life, it makes sense that a security expert should cast his net a little wider. A Hacker’s Mind may stop short of guiding us to the end of the tunnel, but it sheds vital light on the beginnings of our journey into an increasingly complex world.

A Hacker’s Mind: How the Powerful Bend Society’s Rules, and How to Bend Them Back by Bruce Schneier, Norton £24.89/$30, 352 pages

Categories: A Hacker’s Mind, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.