Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

Eye-opening. Reminded me of the extent of the NSA’s surveillance activities, of the importance of the documents Snowden disclosed.

Schneier’s style is easy to read and straightforward, no small feat for a subject that takes in law, cryptography, and communications technology. I plowed through this book in a few days, but I’ll be digesting his points for a good while.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • There are companies that sell the ability to send a silent, undetected phone call to a mobile phone. Call won’t ring, but will cause it to signal nearest cell tower, giving away its location.
  • FBI can (and does) collect personal data from third parties (phone companies, email servers, etc) via National Security Letters, without a warrant.
  • NSA audit showed it broke its own rules against spying for personal reasons at least 8 times a day (!) from 2011 to 2012

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

Picked it up because of Schneier’s awesome columns in Wired and his generally great blog posts. Glad I did, though it wasn’t what I expected.

It turns out to be less of a book with new information and more of one that organizes the things we already know about trust from game theory, anthropology, and neuroscience. It’s well written, and focused on building a framework with which to understand problems of rule making and rule breaking in modern society.

Three connections I hadn’t made before:

  • Corporations cannot be punished like individuals, which makes it harder to force them into compliance, and increases their tendency to defect. The harshest punishment any corporation undergoes is fines, converting a decision that should be affected by moral considerations into a simple question of dollars and cents (and turns the fine into just one more cost of doing business).
  • One potential downside to increasing diversity in a neighborhood: as the number of different standards of what’s fair and what’s polite multiplies, your chances of unknowingly offending someone with your “normal” behavior increases; thus trust in general in the neighborhod declines.
  • Facebook is becoming an institution, setting norms for social behavior, and yet it is a for-profit company, with conflicting interests between its profit motive and society as a whole.