Category Archives: security

Books about security and the ways we make ourselves secure.

Review 139: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Imagine, for a moment, one of our early human ancestors. A first-generation Homo sapiens, exploring his world with an amazing brain that would be the envy of the animal kingdom. If they understood envy. He, and his children, and their children and grandchildren will spread across the Earth as hunter-gatherers, the first beings (so far as we know) who can look at the world and attempt to pass on what it knows and learns. Their threats were simple: survive or don’t. Find food or starve. Hunt or be hunted. And those fantastic brains did such a bang-up job that their descendants are still walking around, thousands of generations later.

Now, take that Paleolithic man – swift of foot, sharp of eye, strong of hand – and drop him in the middle of modern-day Times Square. And, as his minder, give him a bored, easily distracted teenager – one who knows the world, but can’t be bothered to do the work to make decisions.

We are all of us Captain Caveman.

Congratulations. According to Daniel Gardner, we have just constructed a fine metaphor for how the human brain works. Part of it is very old, able to make decisions in an instant based on the slimmest of clues. The other is newer, more rational and savvy, able to put together reasoned, logical arguments, but doesn’t have the sheer speed and force that is prehistoric partner has. And as much as we want it to be true that the rational, modern part of our mind is in charge,the sad fact is that out inner caveman has far more influence over us than we care to admit.

Gardner begins the book with an interesting story about the most terrifying thing to happen in the last decade – the attacks of September 11th in the United States. By the time the towers fell, people around the world were watching, and anyone who didn’t see it live would surely see it soon enough as it was replayed over and over again. It was truly terrifying to watch, unlike anything Americans had seen before in their country, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of people. Many people, as a result, chose to forgo air travel in favor of driving.

Now, as Superman famously told Lois Lane, flying is statistically the safest way to travel. In fact, the most dangerous part of any trip that involves flying is usually the drive to the airport. But, in those days and months after the attacks, people were scared to fly. So they drove instead. And, according to a five year study of traffic fatalities in the U. S. after 9/11 by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, 1,595 people died on the roads who otherwise would not have.

They were afraid, and that’s understandable. But they were afraid of the wrong thing. So they died.

Gardner sets out in this book to figure out why it is that people in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous nations on Earth – in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous era of human history – live in a state of near-constant fear.

As long as he doesn't insist on eating children halal, I don't care...

A lot of it, as the intro implies, comes down to the fact that our brains, which evolved over millions of years to be very good at judging risks that might be found on the savannah, are simply not prepared to do the same in a modern technological world. Our brains can’t tell the difference between risk in fiction and reality, between something that happened to us and something we saw on the news. When it comes to risk, our brains play it very safe, which is great out in nature. Is that shadow in the bushes a tiger? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s probably a good idea to get the hell away from it. We can’t say the same thing of that guy sitting on the bus who looks like maybe he might be a Muslim.

We also tend to assume that if we’ve heard of something recently, then it must be more common. Again if you’re out in nature and you saw a bear yesterday, there’s a decent chance that the bear is still around today and you might want to be wary of that. But what if you see constant news coverage of a high-profile child abduction? It’s on every show, being talked about on every blog – does that mean that the chance of your child being abducted has increased? Of course not, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. Your brain thinks that your child will be taken from you the moment you look away, and all the reasoning in the world won’t change its mind.

One more thing: we don’t get numbers. The news tells us that the rate of certain risks is up by 10%, but they don’t tell us what the original figure was. We hear about millions of starving children in Africa, but don’t do anything unless we get a personal story of one. We don’t understand probability at all, we can’t deal with randomness, and this lack of innate numeracy (compounded by an educational culture that makes it hard to teach kids to become numerate) costs us billions. Or more, as the recent economic Clusterthing has shown, when you have people who are good with numbers deliberately exploiting this flaw in order to profit.

Numeracy is also useful for getting certain kinds of jokes.

We think that correlation equals causation. We believe stories over facts. We think we don’t have biases that we clearly possess. We assign high risk to things we don’t like and low risk to things we do, regardless of how risky they actually are. And on top of all that, we know how to exploit others’ fears in order to gain money and power for ourselves. It’s easy to do, and it works like a charm.

Reading this book won’t make you into a magically unflappable person, mainly because all of this stuff is pretty well hard-wired in our brains. Even Gardner, who should have known better, tells a story about hunting through the slums of Lagos in the middle of the night to retrieve a photo of his children from the wallet that had been stolen from him. He had plenty more, but at that moment, his brain was convinced that losing the photo meant losing his children. Irrational, yes, and it nearly got him killed, but that’s just one example of what a powerful force this primitive brain is.

Never overlook an opportunity for a Green Lantern reference.

The good news, though, is that you can strengthen the newer, more recent brain – the lazy teenager from the initial example. By knowing how you make mistakes, how you can be fooled into fearing things that you don’t need to fear, you can better understand your own reactions to events and make better decisions. You can educate yourself about the things that are actually dangerous, and stop losing sleep over the things that are not a threat. Being afraid is not your fault – it’s an ingrained biological feature. Staying afraid, on the other hand, is something over which you have control. With enough will power, even you can overcome great fear.

Sorry. Nerd moment there.

Are there terrorists who want to destroy the United States? Sure. But they won’t, because doing so is indescribably harder than certain politicians would have you believe. Are there creepy child molesters who want to abduct and defile your children? Yup. But the chances of that actually happening are so low that the odds of any specific child becoming such a victim are nil. Are there angry teens who want to come to their school and kill everyone they see? Of course. But when you look at the incidence of school shooting compared to how many kids go to school every day, you can see that the odds of your children being caught in a school shooting are slim to none. In fact, there are many parts of the country where your children are probably safer in school than out of it.

There are real risks in our modern world, but they’re not spectacular and they’re not viscerally terrifying. A car accident, a heart attack, a diabetic death – these things don’t make the news. Imagine a 9/11-style attack happening every three days, 3,000 dead each time. It would be an outrage, a national disgrace, and people would be scared to their bones. But it would take just about 233 attacks to equal the number of deaths in 2001 that occurred from cardiovascular disease in the United States.

The nearly nonexistent chance of being killed by terrorists is enough to get people to submit to any number of indignities and intrusions on their persons and liberties when they travel, but the very real risk of death from a heart attack isn’t enough to get people to go take a walk once in a while or stop eating junk food. So enjoy that delicious moment of irony the next time you go through the TSA molest-a-thon and get a seriously overweight screener taking liberties with your person.

The fact is that we have it damn good compared to our ancestors. We live longer, we live better, even in parts of the world that are still developing, and it looks like the future will progress that way. But we still insist on needing to be afraid, even as we have less and less to actually fear. So put down the newspaper, turn off the 24-hour news, and take some time to figure out what is actually a threat. Give that bored teenager something to do with his time and let the caveman go back to his cave.

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You don't see a lot of these anymore. There's a reason for that. (photo by Steve Cornelius on Flickr)

“Anyone who has spent time in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.”
– Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear

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Filed under culture, Daniel Gardner, fear, media, nonfiction, psychology, science, security, society, terrorism, The United States

Review 36: Little Brother


Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome when reading young adult fiction is the fact that I’m not a young adult. As most adults know, things look very different from this part of the timeline, and it’s often very difficult to remember not only how you thought when you were younger, but why you thought the way you did. And it’s not a matter of just denying the feelings and emotions of youth – it’s that we literally cannot reset our minds to that state. We know too much, we’ve experienced too much. The best we can do is an approximation of how we think we remember how things were when we were still young enough not to know better.

It was with this in mind that I started to read Little Brother, and while I thought the book was a lot of fun to read, it probably wasn’t nearly as cool as it would have been if I were fourteen years old.

Young Marcus Yallow, AKA w1n5t0n, AKA m1k3y, is a senior at Cesar Chavez high school in San Francisco, and he’s what we used to call a “computer whiz” back when I was a kid. Marcus has an excellent grasp of how systems work, and finds great pleasure and thrill in either strengthening or outwitting those systems. Thus, he is able to fool the various security measures in place in his school building so that he can do the things his teachers don’t want him to do – send IMs in class, sneak out whenever he wants, steal library books, that kind of thing. He’s a hacker supreme, a trickster, and a very big fish in his little pond. He’s so confident and cocky, in fact, that within twenty pages I wanted nothing more than to see him get his comeuppance.

Which is pretty much what happens. A series of bombs go off, destroying the Bay Bridge and killing thousands of people in an attack that dwarfs 9/11. In the chaos that ensues, Marcus and his friends get picked up by Homeland Security, taken to an undisclosed location (which turns out to be Treasure Island) and interrogated within an inch of their lives. They quickly break Marcus’ smug self-confidence and assure him that there is no way he can win against them if they decide he’s a threat to national security. When he is sufficiently cowed, Marcus is released back into the city, which has become a zone of hyper-security.

In this post-attack San Francisco, the police and Homeland Security have unprecedented powers to search and seize, access to every trace of electronic records of citizens’ movements and transactions. In other words, everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise, and DHS is confident that the security they provide is worth the loss of liberty.

Malcolm, of course, disagrees. His natural tendency to buck authority meets his desire to get back at DHS for what they did to him and his friends, and comes together in a plan to not only subvert the Department of Homeland Security, but to actively drive them out of his city. To that end, he creates a youth movement, powered by a secret internet known as the XNet and kept safe by means of complex cryptography. The youth of the city come together to cause chaos, to show Homeland Security that they are not all-powerful and that if anyone is terrifying American citizens, it’s not al-Qaeda.

In the end, of course, the good guys win, though not without some losses and some disappointment. Freedom triumphs over security, but how long that triumph will last is unknown. All we do know is that the right of the citizens to tell their government what to do – as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence – is maintained. So in that sense, all is well.

It’s a fun book to read, and I’ll admit, there were times where I could feel anger building and my heart racing as the story moved along. Perhaps that’s because, like Marcus, I have a solid distrust of authority. I don’t automatically assume that governments act in their citizens’ best interests, so in that sense, this book is targeted at people just like me. Or, if it’s a younger reader, at creating more people like me. The narration is well done, a believable 17-year-old voice, and it’s a pleasure to read. Moreover, it all holds together very well.

In some ways, this book reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Doctorow has clearly done a lot of research on security, both electronic and otherwise, cryptography, politics and history, and found a lot of cool stuff that he’s incorporated into the novel. Unlike Stephenson, however, Doctorow makes sure the story is more important than the trivia. All the cool stuff serves to support the plot, rather than having a plot built up around all the cool stuff the author’s found, which is what Stephenson seems to do a lot. So there are some asides where Malcolm takes a few pages to explain, say, how to fool gait-recognition software or how public and private keys work in electronic cryptography, but he does it in an interesting way and you can be sure that what he’s telling you will feed into the story sooner or later.

With a couple of caveats, and a pretty major plot hole, I’d be glad to hand this off to a nearby teenager and say, “Read this.” But the caveats are kind of big. So let’s get to them.

First, the plot hole, which bugged me from the moment I saw it. And as with all plot holes, I may have missed something, so let me know if I did.

After the bombing of the Bay Bridge, Malcolm and his friends are picked up by DHS and given the Full Guantanamo Treatment. While it looks like they were picked up randomly, the Homeland Security agent who puts them through the wringer implies that they were specifically looking for Malcolm and his buddies, seeing them as a very real and imminent threat to national security. My question is: Why? It’s never explained why DHS picks them up, nor why they treat them as severely as they do. If DHS knew something about Malcolm’s activities as a hacker, why weren’t we told what they knew? It looked like DHS was just picking up random citizens and trying to scare the piss out of them. Which, given the characterization problem that I will discuss later, is entirely possible.

Before that, though – this is a book of its time, and is ultimately less about Malcolm than it is about the time in which Malcolm lives, i.e. about ten minutes in our future. It was published in 2008, which means it was being written during a period in American history where the debate over privacy versus security hit its peak. After September 11th, after the creation of Homeland Security and the Iraq War, Americans had to answer a lot of questions about how safe they wanted to be. It was possible, they said, to be very safe, but only if we sacrificed some of our freedoms. Thus the no-fly list, warrantless wiretaps, and waterboarding. It’s a dilemma that mankind has faced since we started organizing into societies, and it seemed, in the opening years of the 21st century, that America was willing to give up a good deal of its personal liberty in exchange for not having thousands of citizens die.

Doctorow believes this is a very bad exchange to make, and has been publicly vocal in saying so. On Boing Boing, a webzine that is decidedly in favor of intellectual and informational freedom, Doctorow has repeatedly railed against ever-intrusive technology measures by both governments and corporations. He, and the other editors of Boing Boing, champion the personal liberty of people, both as citizens and consumers, and I tend to agree with them.

But that makes Little Brother less a book about the issues that affect young people than a book about what it’s like to live in a hyper-security culture. And that’s not a bad thing, mind you – like I said, it makes for a very exciting book. I just don’t know how long it will last once we stop having the liberty/security argument as vocally as we are now.

Which brings me to my other caveat, and one that bothers me more than the book being period fiction – bad characterization. Malcolm is great, as are his close friends and his eventual girlfriend, Ange. They’re real, they’re complex and they’re interesting. In fact, most of the “good guys” in this book are well-drawn. Depending on your definition of “good,” of course – after all, Malcolm is technically a terrorist, so long as you define “terrorist” as “someone who actively operates to subvert, disturb or otherwise challenge the government by illegal means.”

If Malcolm and his subversive friends are the good guys, then that makes the Government the bad guys, and this is where Doctorow falls flat on his face. The characters who operate in support of security culture, whether they’re agents of Homeland Security or just in favor of the new security measures (Malcolm’s father being a prime example), are cardboard cut-outs that just have “Insert Bad Guy Here” written on them in crayon. There is no depth to their conviction, no complexity to their decisions. Doctorow makes it clear that anyone who collaborates with DHS is either a willful idiot or outright malevolent, without considering any other options. He gives a little in the case of Malcolm’s father, but not enough to make me do more than roll my eyes when he came out with the hackneyed, “Innocent people have nothing to fear” line.

Any character who acts against Malcolm in this book (and, it is implied, disagrees with Doctorow) is a straw man, a villain or a collaborator straight from central casting with all the depth of a sheet of tinfoil. They are all easy to hate and make Malcolm look all the better, even though he’s acting as, let’s face it, an agent of chaos.

While this may make the story easier to tell (and, from my readings of Boing Boing, turning those who disagree with you into objects of ridicule is a popular method of dealing with criticism – see disemvowleing), it cheapens it. As much as I – and Doctorow – may hate the idea of security infringing on liberty, as much as we hate the reversals in personal freedoms that we’ve seen over the last eight years, and as much as we may want Malcolm to come out on top, it has to be acknowledged that sometimes people who want to restrain liberty aren’t doing it out of malice.

There are those whose desire to see a safe, orderly nation is so strong and so honest that they’re able to make the decision to curtail those liberties that make order harder to attain. And they’re not doing it because they hate young people, or because they’re some cinema villain out for power or just to see people suffer. They’re doing it because they truly, honestly believe it is the right thing to do. To write them off as “Bad Guys,” as this book does, is to ignore the reality of the situation and boil it down to an “Us vs Them” scenario, which is not how the world works.

Now it could be argued that this was a reasonable artistic decision – after all, Malcolm is the narrator of this tale, therefore we’re seeing things through his eyes and his perceptions. But that doesn’t wash. Malcolm is obviously an intelligent person who understands complexity, and if Doctorow had given him the opportunity to see shades of gray, he could have been able to handle it. More importantly, though, that argument is a cheat. A book like this is meant to open eyes and minds, and that can’t be done by reducing the issue to us versus them. Doctorow does his readers a disservice by not allowing them the opportunity to question their own attitudes towards the issue.

I really think the book would have been better, and had a deeper meaning, if Doctorow had made an honest attempt to show the other side in a more honest light. I still would have rooted for Malcolm, and hated the DHS, but his ultimate victory would have been more meaningful if it had been a fairer fight.

Of course, I say this as an adult, who understands things in a different light than a teenager. Perhaps if I had had this book when I was thirteen it would have changed my life. And despite my misgivings about the characters and the universality of the story, I still think it’s a great book and well worth reading – probably one of those books that will be a model of early 21st century fiction. Indeed, the core lesson of Little Brother – that citizens have the responsibility to police their government – is a lesson whose time has come. The G20 protests in London this year are a great example – many incidents of police abuse were clearly and unambiguously recorded by citizens armed with cell phones. The ability for information to be quickly and reliably distributed is the modern countermeasure against government abuse, though I doubt it’ll end as cleanly as it did in this book. Reading this book in the context of the last ten years or so gave me some hope for the power of the populace.

But it also served to remind me that I’m not that young anymore. The rallying cry of the youth in this book is “Don’t trust anyone over 25,” and I’m well past that stage in my temporal existence. The rebels of the day are young. They’re tech-savvy and unafraid, with nothing to lose but their lives. In this age of rapidly evolving technology, in a time where youth is everything, is there a place in the revolution for people who have advanced in age to their *shudder* mid-thirties?

Other people pull muscles trying to play sports like they did in high school, I have existential dilemmas reading young adult fiction. I never claimed to be normal.

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“They’d taken everything from me. First my privacy, then my dignity. I’d been ready to sign anything. I would have signed a confession that said I’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”
– Malcolm, Little Brother
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Little Brother on Wikipedia
Cory Doctorow on Wikipedia
BoingBoing
Download Little Brother for free
Little Brother on Amazon.com

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Filed under children, Cory Doctorow, ethics, fiction, internet, politics, security, society, technology, young adult