Safe and Free

Wednesday, November 19th, 2003

Just finished Bruce Schneier’s new book , which treats the design and analysis of security measures with numerous applications to Current Events. Schneier’s common-sense writing style makes a nice contrast to the hysterical pieties that fill most public discourse on security these days. He follows Orwell’s rules with rare scrupulousness; Beyond Fear is straightforward but never dumbed-down, elegant but never glib.

Schneier keeps his political leanings carefully hidden, emphasizing pragmatic arguments. Not all of his conclusions will please hard-core libertarians; he argues that arming pilots is probably not worthwhile and that the TSA is a real improvement over the (sorta) private firms that it replaced. Yet his reasoning can be refreshing even here: his case against armed pilots, for example, is completely non-hoplophobic– he just thinks separate armed sky marshals are more effective.

The book does have plenty of libertarian red meat; Schneier rips on ID-checking requirements, takes apart TIA and TIPS. Moreover, when discussing the impact of security measures on civil liberties, he repeatedly reminds us that Constitutional restraints on government are themselves security measures, and he treats police-state tyranny as a genuine security threat, not to be dismissed as paranoid fantasy. Schneier stops short of an analysis of government as an attacker with an interest in systematically gaining power over people’s lives, which disappointed me given his general diligence in pointing out the special-interest agendas behind so many bad security measures. But perhaps such an analysis is too much to ask of such a determinedly apolitical book.

Beyond Fear is full of pleasantly geeky factoids about locks in Switzerland, the design of the Berlin Wall, Iranian counterfeit $100 bills, and the like. It’s also peppered with insightful skewerings of conventional wisdom. Toward the end Schneier convincingly debunks the “terrorists could never again hijack a plane 9/11-style because of the passenger response” meme, by listing several plausible ways to pull off such a hijacking. This is good stuff, well worth the hardcover price.

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54 Responses to “Safe and Free”

  1. #1 |  Anonymous | 

    Schneier has a monthly newsletter called Crypto-Gram ( where he frequently discusses these types of security issues. I disagree with him occasionally, but he’s always worth reading.

    Last week, I listened to a Cato Forum with Dan Verton, the author of “Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyberterrorism” ( Verton spent the time ranting about how we should never do cost/benefit analysis. Instead we should just keep throwing resources at any and every potential security hole, no matter how small or insignificant.

    I’m glad there are people like Schneier out there to counter these idiots.

  2. #2 |  Anonymous | 

    I listened to Verton’s Cato presentation also, but I thought he hit it right on the money. He said the same thing that Rudy Guiliani said to a high-tech forum — if it’s your responsibility to protect your company’s information, then do it. It’s going to cost you money and resources, but tough.

    I’m glad that Verton isn’t as politicized as the Schniers of the world. Schnier calls himslef a technologist who refuses to talk policy. What a load of crap. I’m glad that Schnier is not calling the shots for the country’s future preparedness or we would simply be forever responding to catastrophes instead of thinking about how to prevent future, unexpected attacks.

    The idiots are the ones who refuse to think outside the box — you know those guys, the ones who laughed in 1994 when they were first told that al-Qaeda wanted to use airplanes as flying bombs. That’s where I would put Schnier and your lot.

  3. #3 |  Anonymous | 

    Yeah, I read Schnier’s book too and I couldn’t believe how simplistic his definition of terrorism is. It was rediculous and a waste of energy to read. The same old stuff in a different book.

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