Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bruce Schneier's "Liars and Outliers"

Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist who studies the human side of security. A prolific author, he has written hundreds of articles, essays, and academic papers, as well as eleven books that together have sold more than 400,000 copies. He has testified before Congress, is a frequent guest on television and radio, and is regularly quoted in the press.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive, and reported the following:
Liars and Outliers is a book about trust in society. My aim is to explore how society induces mutual trust among its members. As a social species, our societies require an enormous amount of trust to function. Just today, I bought a lamp -- trusting not only the merchant but also the banking and credit card systems. I drove my car, trusting other drivers. I ate in a restaurant, trusting even more people, plus a complex food production and delivery system. And then I boarded an airplane to Europe. Delineating all the different people, organizations, things, and systems I trusted there would take pages. I could have been taken advantage of, cheated, physically harmed, or even killed many times. And yet I wasn't. In fact, I was so trusting that I never gave it a moment's thought.

There's a fundamental tension between group interest and self-interest going on. It's in the group interest for commerce to be both safe and reliable, yet it is in both mine and the lamp salesman's interests to cheat each other. We don't because of a complex of both evolved social systems and deliberately created legal and technical systems. Those are all what I call societal pressures.

Morals are one societal pressure. Page 99 is near the end of the chapter about reputational systems. One of the reasons that lamp merchant -- or, indeed, the restaurant's owners or the airline -- didn't cheat me is that none of them want a reputation as a cheat. Reputation, and the consequences of both a good and bad reputation, is an example of a societal pressure. After explaining how reputation works, I turn to ways in which reputation can fail.
Defectors take steps to hide facts that can harm their reputation, or manipulate facts to help their reputation. Recall that in the mid-1970s, John Wayne Gacy managed to rape and kill 33 young men. All the while, his Chicago neighbors and colleagues on civic and charitable committees never suspected "Pogo the Clown" Gacy was involved in any work more diabolical than entertaining children for good causes. In the UK, Dr. Harold Shipman had a similar story. Described as "a pillar of the community" by his neighbors, he killed at least 250 people, mostly elderly widows, before he was caught. Most examples are less extreme. A politician might go to church and publicly pray, to encourage people to think he's honest: a whited sepulchre. An American trekking through Europe might sew a Canadian flag on his backpack.

Confidence tricksters spend a lot of time manipulating reputation signals. They employ all sorts of props, fa├žades, and other actors—shills—to convince their victims that they have a good reputation by appearing authentic, building confidence, and encouraging trust. Corporations and political candidates both do similar things; they use paid supporters to deliberately spread artificial reputational information about them. This is becoming even more prevalent and effective on the Internet. Hired hands write fake blog posts, blog comments, tweets, Facebook comments, and so on. Scammers on eBay create fake feedback, giving themselves a better reputation. There are even companies that will give you fake Facebook friends, making you seem more popular with attractive people than you actually are.

Defectors try to minimize the effects of their bad reputation. People get new friends, move to another city, or—in extreme cases—change their names, get plastic surgery, or steal someone else's identity. Philip Morris renamed itself....
The other two societal pressures are institutional pressures, like laws, and technical security measures. How they all work, how they fail, and what this all means for 21st century society are all covered in the book. I hope you'll click through and give it a look.
Learn more about the book and author at Bruce Schneier's website.

--Marshal Zeringue