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on July 4, 2007
The content of this book slightly overlap the content of the author previous book (Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World) but presents the material with a different angle. An angle with the perspective of a security expert that witness security measures taken by governments in reaction of the 9/11 terrorism attack and wants people to understand the absurdity of some of these measures.

It is not technical at all and does not necessitate any particular background to understand and enjoy. The author explains clearly how to make a risk assessment of something that you want to make more secure and then evaluate the cost of the security measures. Only when you have that data, you can evaluate if the added security is worth it.

These explanations are backed up with concrete examples such as evaluating the risk to make purchase with a credit card over the internet. Other examples include the absurdity of securing a lunch in a company refrigerator because the potential loss if having a lunch stolen does not justify securing it. The author also explains that even with technologies that looks very accurate such as facial recognition with an error rate of, let's say, 0.0001 % are totally ineffective when they have to control a huge number of persons like a stadium crowd because even with this accuracy, they would create an unmanageable amount of false positive alerts.

The author also elaborate about why you should question the motivation of a security provider when it is a third party and link this with how people fears can be exploited to introduce invasive, excessively expensive and inefficient security measures. I think that the goal of the author was to make people more critics about security questions and my opinion is that his goal has been successfully achieved.
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on January 5, 2004
I have read a number of the Pro and Con reviews. I think it is important to take a good look at the title of the book, and use that as a guide to a buying decision. This book is not an in-depth cookbook of technical approaches to combat hackers, but rather a sensible way of looking at the issues that contribute to an aura of security, the appearance of security, and actually being secure. I really liked the whole premise, because we are such an image conscience, and sound-bite oriented society that it can become quite difficult to deliver a thought-provoking treatise on a topic that many think they know so much about.
My only negative comment would be that it got a little slow at the end, for me. Maybe I was just tired that night or something.
He cites a few excellent examples of places or instances where someone did something that they honestly felt would contribute to increased security, when the actual effect turned out to be the opposite. If I may draw a crude comparison: if you appreciated some of the observations, and perhaps even the writing style and presentation in Hammer and Champy's "Reengineering the Corporation", then you will like and appreciate this volume. The way Mr. Schneier presents information, and the way he introduces you to perceived vs. actual may strike you as being similar. (No offense meant to either author - I enjoyed both)
Happy trails.
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on December 16, 2003
I first read about Bruce Schneier in an eye-opening article by Charles Mann in the September, 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It seems that you don't have to make the false choice everyone is agonizing over between security and liberty. You can have both.
Schneier's book expands on the ideas in the article. Although Schneier is a technology fan and it is his livelihood, he realizes that sometimes a live security guard can provide better security than cutting-edge (but still fallible) face-recognition scanners, for instance. He explains why national ID cards are not a good idea, and how iris-scanners can be fooled.
These are ideas for security on a large scale, for airports, nuclear and other power plants, and government websites. For security on an individual or small business scale, try Art of the Steal by Frank Abagnale. But even if you don't run a government, Beyond Fear is a fascinating read about how your government is making choices (and how they SHOULD be making choices about your security and about your rights.
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on December 15, 2003
Hello Richard,
in your review you wrote:
"A threat is a party with the capabilities and intentions to exploit a vulnerability in an asset"
"All of these terms were defined years ago by military intel and law enforcement types" and
" It's the digital security community that's obscuring the definitions"
I disagree. Information security just has slightly different jargon. That's not an uncommon source of confusion in different, but related, professional fields, and there's a particular reason why we're really not interested in the military definition of "threat".
In the information security field, "risk" and "vulnerability" have roughly the same meanings that you use. However, "threat" means something more like "a method of exploiting a vulnerability or combination of vulnerabilities to cause a loss", while what you call a "threat" is an abstraction called an opponent or adversary. When we talk about "threat analysis", we mean examining ways vulnerabilities can be combined and exploited and what kinds of losses they can cause; these analyses may then be used as inputs to a risk analysis model. In the lunch room example you cited, the threat is "casually saunter up to the fridge, glance around, take a lunch, scurry away", and would be characterised as "low cost, low skill, low risk of discovery". The threat is indeed the same whether or not there is an opponent to exploit it. Opponents, in turn, are fairly abstractly characterised, something like:
C "local hobo who notices the smokers propping open the lunch room door"
B "hungry intern on low wage"
A "corporate saboteur spiking the CFO's salad at the AGM"
What your intel and law enforcement types call a "threat analysis" simply isn't terribly relevant in the IT security field; we are mostly civilian corporate employees, with neither the right nor capability to compile dossiers on *specific* "opponents". We do compile information about what kind of attacks have actually been occuring; we call that the "CERT Summary"!
It is true, as Schneier says, that "threat analysis" and "risk analysis" are often confused in IT security - due in large part to the non-IT security world merging both concepts into their risk analyses. But in our field it is much better to keep them separate. A threat analysis is a more abstract (and hence generally applicable) study, while a risk analysis depends on a particular business model. For example, if we store Almas caviar in the fridge instead of salami, the threat analysis is the same, but the risk analysis will be considerably different; all the wierdo threats that were low risk before (e.g. masked men with shotguns storming the fridge) become realistic. This separation is useful when identical reusable software components may be employed by thousands of very different businesses.
So, I while I found your comments very interesting, I think the semantic difference is just a difference, not an error.
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on November 20, 2003
_Beyond Fear_ is a good book, and I'd put it into the "should read" but not "must read" category for people working in security (as opposed to _Secrets and Lies_, which I put into the "must read" category). There's little new or profound in the book, which is essentially an elaboration with examples on the five-step process of analyzing and evaluating security systems given on pp. 14-15 of the book:
1. What assets are you trying to protect?
2. What are the risks to these assets?
3. How well does the security system mitigate those risks?
4. What other risks does the security system cause?
5. What costs and trade-offs does the security solution impose?
In the process, Schneier provides many interesting examples. This is an excellent book on security for the layman. But it is definitely a book targeted at a popular audience. There are no footnotes or references, and Schneier occasionally tosses off remarks or asides that are questionable, if not false.
There are two significant flaws in the book:
1. It exaggerates the subjectivity of a security evaluation. On p. 17, chapter two is titled "Security Trade-offs are Subjective." But it's not the trade-off itself that is subjective. It's not the risk assessment that is subjective. It is people's non-instrumental desires (basic desires) or
values that are subjective.
Schneier writes (p. 17) that "Different people have different senses of what constitutes a threat"--but some are right and some are wrong. His distinction between perceived and actual risk shows that the important one is actual risk, not perceived risk. Actual risk is objective, not subjective. Schneier continues "or what level of risk is acceptable." That can certainly have a subjective component, but even subjective components can conflict with each other and be internally inconsistent, indicating a problem in the evaluation.
The final sentence of the chapter contradicts the chapter title: "Because we do not understand the risks, we make bad security trade-offs." (p. 31) If the trade-offs were subjective, there would be no such thing as a bad trade-off, only a trade-off perceived to be bad by someone.
Later in the book Schneier contradicts the strong subjectivity claim (e.g., p. 249: "Massive surveillance systems are *never* worth it." (emphasis added)) I don't think he seriously meant to make the strong claim--I think it's just careless/imprecise writing. p. 259 seems to get it pretty much right, but he should really have found a philosopher to review this book--that a problem is intractable doesn't mean that the answer is subjective, nor does the fact that subjective interests enter into the picture mean that the answer, given those interests, is subjective.
2. The book argues for an exaggerated egalitarianism--that anybody, regardless of background, training, or intelligence, can do security analysis. At the same time, the book touches on some of the evidence that ordinary judgments are inaccurate, and that people are notoriously bad at estimating and comparing risks due to the natural use of heuristics like vividness, recency, etc. (the classic Kahnemann and Tversy book, _Judgment Under Uncertainty_, summarizes some of this evidence).
It would be grossly mistaken to think that Joe Schmoe off the street is going to be capable of designing (or evaluating) the effectiveness of a complex security system, versus people with appropriate training and experience--just as mistaken as hiring people with no computer knowledge to build and maintain your IT infrastructure.
Again, like in point 1, Schneier says things which contradict the strong hypothesis he seems to argue for, for example when he writes that wealthy people want doctors who treat others, not just standing by on 24/7 on-call for those wealthy people, because they want doctors who are experienced.
And I think this is a good comparison--the position Schneier *should* be arguing for is that we should take responsibility for our own security in the same way that we should take responsibility for our own health. We still need to rely on experts, but we should take an active role in consulting with them and evaluating what they tell us, especially since (just as in health care and medicine) there are people who know what they are talking about and those who are snake oil salesmen.
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on October 31, 2003
"Beyond Fear" is a good book, but don't turn to it for proper definitions of security terms. Steer clear of this book's misuse of the words "threat" and "risk." While I appreciate Schneier's overall discussion of security issues, I expect a book aimed at the layman to be more accurate.
Schneier introduces the term "threat" on p. 20 with this example: "Most people don't give any thought to securing their lunch in the company refrigerator. Even though there's a threat of theft, its not a significant risk because attacks are rare and the potential loss just isn't a big deal. A rampant lunch thief in the company changes the equation; the threat remains the same, but the risk of theft increases." That's wrong; let's start with definitions (mine, based on intel experience -- not the author's).
A threat is a party with the capabilities and intentions to exploit a vulnerability in an asset. A vulnerability is a weakness in an asset which could lead to exploitation. Risk is the possibility of suffering harm or loss. It's a measure of danger. All of these terms were defined years ago by military intel and law enforcement types, especially those doing counter-terrorism.
In the lunchroom example, nobody initially "secures" their lunch, even though their "assets" are held in a "vulnerable" (unlocked, unguarded) refrigerator. Why? There's no "threat" -- people have the capability to steal lunches but nobody has evil intentions. "Risk" of losing one's lunch is close to zero. Now, add the "rampant lunch thief." The threat is NOT "the same"; a threat now exists for the first time. The risk equation changes -- risk of loss is much higher. (Countermeasures like a guard can reduce the vulnerability and bring risk of loss closer to the original low level.)
Another example of fuzzy thinking appears on p. 50. "Just because your home hasn't been broken into in decades doesn't mean that it's secure." Says who? If the threat the entire time was zero, the house was always perfectly secure. Vulnerabilities are but one part of the risk equation, which is Risk = Threat X Vulnerability X Cost of Asset. If any factor is zero, risk is zero.
One quick final example appears on p. 238: "The problem lies in the fact that the threat -- the potential damage -- is enormous." Wrong! A threat is an agent, or party, who wants to and can inflict damage. "Threat" in this sentence should be "cost," meaning the replacement value of the assets at risk.
A hint to the source of these errors appears on p. 82: "examining an asset and trying to imagine all the possible threats against that asset is sometimes called 'threat analysis' or 'risk analysis.' (The terms are not well defined in the security business, and they tend to be used interchangeably.)" Which security business? Counter-terrorism and intel folks know threat analysis is performed against groups with capabilities and intentions to harm American assets. Risk analysis calculates the potential for loss given a certain threat, an asset's vulnerabilities, and the value of that asset. It's the digital security community that's obscuring the definitions.
I loved "Secrets and Lies," and every time I see the author speak I learn something new. Am I off base with this review? You be the judge. I still gave it 4 stars, since the book's vignettes are informative and its scope impressive. Given the large number of reviewers I expected someone to challenge the author's terminology. Yes, this is semantics, but shouldn't a book by an expert set the record straight? I don't think my expectations are unrealistic, either; Schneier is a previously published "thought leader," and he deserves to be held to the highest possible standards.
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on October 31, 2003
"Anyone who tries to entice you with promises of absolute security or safety is pandering to your fears" (pg 277).
This whole book is filled with common-sense and not-so-common-sense thinking. I had the opportunity to see Schneier speak at Toorcon 2003 in San Diego and I can tell you this guy not only knows as much as anyone about security, he also talks *like a normal person*. He's not arrogant, he doesn't throw in gratuitous latin terms, he just makes a very clear point with extremely strong logic to back it up.
That's what this book is: a handbook on how to logically sift through all the garbage that's trickling down to us via the US media and our govt. Does the FBI need expanded snooping powers? Not according to Schneier, who backs that up with facts regarding 9-11 that tell us the right govt agencies *had* the info, they just couldn't analyze it all. So giving up a bunch of our privacy for the FBI to get more info doesn't make much sense in combating terrorism.
This is just one example in dozens. You may not even agree (I've met a few FBI people and they ALWAYS say they need more power/info), but reading this book allows you to pull the emotion out of security-based decisions, whether they are about home alarm systems or airport security lines.
For people who aren't familiar with Schneier, he is basically a semi-legend in the information security field for his cryptography, writing and speaking. His last book, "Secrets & Lies", broadened the scope of his writing from crypto to general infosec. Now he has broadened his focus even further to include the physical world (beyond the server room). To be honest he doesn't really even bring up computers directly that often, and when he does he usually tells us that they aren't nearly as good at making security decisions as people. Seasoned infosec people won't be surprised by any of the logic or conclusions in this book, but it's still worth a read because Schneier has obviously spent a lot of his brain's cycles thinking about security in general and we can all benefit from his conclusions.
Schneier has won my respect with this book. It proves that not only does he get the security details (the crypto), he gets the "big picture", even when the big picture has nothing to do with computing (eg muggings). It is rare to find this in one company, let alone one person.
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on October 16, 2003
Executive summary: Timely and well written. Buy it.
Bruce has a great ability to "keep it real" - which is why his books are so readable and down to earth. With a background in cryptography, Bruce has broadened his scope to become one of the broadest-thinkers in security today - no mean feat by any measure.
One of the reasons I tell my corporate consulting clients to "Read Bruce's books" is because he's able to put things into the overall context in a way that is uplifting rather than depressing or overwhelming. For example, I consider "Secrets and Lies" (and now "Beyond Fear") to be essential bookshelf material for anyone who has to deal with security. When people are starting in security and ask me where to begin, it's with these books. Absorbing them, and the concepts behind them, is a good way of avoiding the pitfalls in this complex field.
For the non-security-professional, this book is also a terrific read. Read it more like it's a spy novel, sit back, and enjoy it. Movie script-writers? If you're going to write a script that touches on computer security: read this book.
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on August 12, 2003
Bruce Schneier's latest book is a departure from his previous work, leaving the technical realm largely behind as it looks at the concept of security in the whole. He brings a clear and witty expertise to the subject, balancing the real concerns with concepts that enable us to evaluate and act on our individual security situation.
Security is a timely but complex issue, and Bruce has always been great at taking complex issues and breaking them down for the reader so that all the concepts seem clear and understandable, while at the same time building concept on concept until you have a clear and deep understanding of a various difficult situation. He provides a five step process that allows you to evaluate your risk and security solutions, identifying those which are ineffective and increasing security in each individual's life.
Bruce uses a variety of interesting examples, which all by themselves are worth the read. He writes witty, engaging prose throughout. The book is, simply, a great read.
This is an important book. It covers one of the most critical concerns of our time in a clear and accessible way, while at the same time discussing and clarifying the complexity and nuances of the subject. It provides the reader with a really good read, and with tools to use to make them truly more secure and to understand and evaluate what our governments are doing on our behalf in the security arena.
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on August 10, 2003
"I am reminded of stories of farmers from the countryside coming to the big city for the first time. We are all rubes from the past, trying to cope with the present day." (Page 29.)
"Beyond Fear" explains how experts think about security and the new challenges posed both by modern technology and the medieval mindset of suicide bombers. Everyone knows that security has costs: money, time, and perhaps restrictions on civil liberties. But experts know that security measures, even if well thought-out, often create entirely new problems. Amatuerish attempts to increase security often decrease security instead.
In "Beyond Fear," Schneier introduces five simple questions to ask about any security measure to determine if the measure is useful or useless. He uses examples ranging from satelllite technology to antics of deep-sea squids to illustrate his points. And, as anyone in the sciences knows, "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." Any real-life situation will require a complex series of tradeoffs between conflicting requirements and costs.
Written for the intelligent layperson, this book is required reading for any person who wants to understand how to approach security on a personal, national, and international level.
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