Schneier on Trust: A Book Review

Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

With his latest book, Bruce Schneier continues to move away from his early work focusing on the underpinnings of technology to focusing on the social and cultural forces that shape our security in a hyper-connected society. The centrality of trust to society's function is insightfully demonstrated through a series of models and real world examples.

Economist will feel at home as Schneier digs into game theory covering the prisoner's dilemma, the hawk-dove game, the free-rider problem, and other scenarios. By building a foundation of understanding with these concepts, Schneier goes on to demonstrate the limited benefits of applying more and more of the same types of security pressures. Security discussed in terms of cost and benefit reveals the mistake of assuming that more spending on security system will result in greater and great security benefits. Risk will always involve trade offs but only the right mix of societal pressures will lead to trust and security.

The outliers that are discussed are the individuals in society that defect and go against what is in the group's interest. Defectors "never act well except through necessity: but where choice abounds and where license may be used, everything is quickly filed with confusion and disorder." (Niccolo Machiavelli) The presence of these defectors makes it rational that individuals give up freedoms to governments and institutions that will enforce restrictions against the defectors.  In this discussion of social contract theory Schneier makes it clear that many institutions are important to minimizing the bad acts of defectors.  

Schneier's comprehensive view of societal influences reminded me of Lawrence Lessig's book "Code" which explores markets, law, norms, and architecture as the framework for the behavior regulation.  Unlike Lessig's models, however, Schneier is less interested in what he calls the "honest majority" and much more focused on the "dishonest minority."  

For readers that enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's casual writing which typically involves a theory gently explained through interesting short stories, this book may be a bit too heavy to enjoy.  But for those that are willing to set aside some time to dig into the wide variety of ideas and research that have been knit together to form this text, the results will be rewarding.