DATA AND GOLIATH. By Bruce Schneier. Norton. 365 pages. $27.95.
“Data and Goliath” is a broad-ranging assessment of our interconnected world, with all of its risks and hidden dangers, by foremost security expert Bruce Schneier. His book makes clear that we are living in the golden age of government and corporate surveillance and control. And that says nothing of the hackers and cyber criminals.
Schneier paints a dismal picture, but he offers several concrete suggestions to correct, or at least minimize, most of the problems. Take the issue of data brokers: If your business would like a list of people who fall in the category of “adults with senior parents” or “potential inheritor” or “diabetic households,” Acxiom can provide them. InfoUSA and Equifax can, too. Schneier points out that every day we allow such companies to spy on us in exchange for services. “If something is free, you are not the customer, you are the product,” he writes.
Advertisers have always longed to find the best way to target their advertising in order to maximize return on their advertising dollar. Now, thanks to the Internet, they can personalize their ads for an individual. They do that by “data mining,” or using data brokers as described previously. Information vendors, as well as product vendors, try to learn as much about you as possible. Then, when you key a question about a topic, they will provide you with an interminably long list of references — in the order in which they think you will like it.
There is an insidious danger here, Schneier shows. Research of this sort only reinforces what you already thought. This mechanism polarizes us into little islands of “group think” and hardens our opinions. If you and your brother, who is more right-wing than you, each goes to his computer and asks Google, “What is the correlation between gun ownership and violent crime?” Google will not return a single answer.
To quote Schneier: “We don’t want to live in a society where everybody only ever reads things that reinforce their existing opinions, where we never have spontaneous encounters that enliven, confound, confront and teach us.”
Internet hacking and cyber warfare have made the dangers even worse. Remember how, just 15 years ago, we feared a semi-Armageddon because computers would not be able handle the new date format at the turn of the millennium? Although it turned out to be a tempest in a teapot, today’s motivated and talented hackers can really do a lot of damage. When such activities are state-sponsored, the scale and the stakes rise to new heights.
The book is organized into three parts, like an easy-to-read textbook: the world we’re creating, what’s at stake and what to do about it. Each part has five or six chapters.
It is both a frightening and encouraging treatise. It discusses many important issues that are unknown to most of us or are crucial subjects of which we have only a superficial understanding. Good security need not put us at risk, but good security is not yet the norm.
“Data and Goliath” deserves the widest possible readership.
Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is retired engineer currently living in Hanahan.