back to article Q&A: Crypto-guru Bruce Schneier on teaching tech to lawmakers, plus privacy failures – and a call to techies to act

Politicians are, by and large, clueless about technology, and it's going to be up to engineers and other techies to rectify that, even if it means turning down big pay packets for a while. This was the message computer security guru Bruce Schneier gave at last week's RSA Conference in San Francisco, during a keynote address, …

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  1. Wellyboot Silver badge
    Holmes

    Bruce telling it like it is!

    >>>Lawmakers are reluctant to disrupt the enormous wealth creation machine<<<

    Because they really like it when the wealth is heading their way in return for doing nothing.

    1. JLV

      Re: Bruce telling it like it is!

      >>>They can force the companies they work for to abandon lucrative US military contracts<<<

      Yes, but China and US arms sales are easy ethics brownie points for an employee of FB or Google*. Slurping up data is more easily rationalized to be not evil and is also sending fat paycheques and stock options one’s way. Plus, in certain circles, data is their dream and birthright. Wanna bet they’re not going to saw off their own branch?

      * wake me up when employees at Northrop rebel against selling jets to Prince Mohammed Ben Saw-dissidents-to-pieces.

      1. Robert Helpmann??
        Childcatcher

        Re: Bruce telling it like it is!

        They can force the companies they work for to abandon lucrative US military contracts... If employees start to routinely demand the companies they work for behave more morally, the change would be both swift and dramatic.

        While I am aware of differing opinions on the defense industry, being a part of it is not the equivalent of immorality. @JLV makes a good point on those Googlers' ability to hold mutually opposing ideas at the same time. It's so easy to claim that you aren't doing anything wrong if it's someone else taking the action while you merely provide the support needed to enable it.

  2. DanceMan
    Alert

    Thanks for this

    Important thoughts from Schneier; good questions by Thomson.

    The gap between these ideas and legislative reality is troubling.

    1. stiine Silver badge

      Re: Thanks for this

      , but not really surprising.

    2. IainT

      Re: Thanks for this

      Thanks, Bruce is always a good chap to interview with lots of interesting ideas.

  3. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Pie in the Sky, the Phantom Traded Stock of Parasitic Political Pygmies and Wannabe Caesars?

    Politicians are, by and large, clueless about technology, and it's going to be up to engineers and other techies to rectify that, even if it means turning down big pay packets for a while. This was the message computer security guru Bruce Schneier gave at last week's RSA Conference in San Francisco, during a keynote address,...

    It's never going to happen, Bruce, for it is more than just a waste of creative time ..... for such will be counter-productive and that is never going to be accepted by anyone working/majoring/pioneering in ITs myriad immensely explosive/fundamentally disruptive fields.*

    Just imagine all those newly clued up politically incorrect minions, in the very dangerous position of being given a little more knowledge about vast bit and byte fields in which they are merely spectators and ignorant passengers, presuming to regulate and direct to the satisfaction of their other chosen lobby factions and secret benefactors, Proprietary Intellectual Property that recognises and treats them as toxic parasitic.

    If you see the future in another light with a different picture painted by media, show how it will be realised please whenever you now know what it is surely to be arraigned against as both its competition and/or opposition.

    * ... Fields which can very easily, very quickly extraordinarily render politicians the choice of being seen as being a totally unnecessary drain on public resources or rearranged as a dumb tool for future techies to fool around with and program better.

    1. It's just me
      Terminator

      Re: Pie in the Sky, the Phantom Traded Stock of Parasitic Political Pygmies and Wannabe Caesars?

      Wow, did AMfM get an upgrade? That post was more coherent and natural then the psychedelic word explosion I'm used to seeing from him.

      1. VikiAi
        Boffin

        Re: Pie in the Sky, the Phantom Traded Stock of Parasitic Political Pygmies and Wannabe Caesars?

        Planetary alignment is particularly good today for fast data-transfer between his distributed parts.

  4. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

    Tech companies are already providing pro bono advice to lawmakers .... it's called lobbying. The tech companies push their point of view and the politicians modulate it with whatever gets them reelected. This is happening at Federal and State levels in the USA - looks like the same game is going on in the UK too. It illustrates the root problem with politics these days - it's a job that needs no qualifications other than the ability to fool most of the people every now and then. We elect stupid politicians, smart politicians, and occasionally good politicians but most of the time we can't tell the difference until after the election.

    It's like feeling sick one day and deciding to hold an election to appoint someone to treat you. Yes, a doctor or surgeon could run for the position - but would they get elected if other candidates offered free beer, comfy beds, or a five course dinner every evening? This is how we end up picking someone with a second class BA degree in geography to run the country and look how well that's working out.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

      A second class in geography beats any Oxbridge 'Arguing the Toss' PPE in my list of useful subjects. (Able to brew Tea category)

      Maybe we Sci. & Eng. types are just too honest to be politicos?

      1. Version 1.0 Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

        "Maybe we Sci. & Eng. types are just too honest to be politicos?" - that's a very good point, how many politicians these days have a STEM degree? Personally I think a degree in History should be a minimum requirement for anyone to run for a a political office.

        1. stiine Silver badge

          Re: Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

          Why? Historians are only cultural interpreters.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

          how many politicians these days have a STEM degree?

          https://www.quora.com/How-many-Members-of-UK-Parliament-have-science-degrees

          And of course there was Margaret Thatcher.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

            Actually Margaret Thatcher is a canonical example of how a fairly intelligent, open-minded scientist can go sour very quickly when exposed to the atmosphere of politics.

            She abandoned the principles of science, largely because in politics and economics hardly anything can be rigorously proved. It all becomes a matter of opinion, and then of persuading as many others as possible that your opinion is fact.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

        A corollary is that, when STEM graduates enter the political field - even just as advisers - they will drink the political Kool-Aid and start thinking like politicians and businessmen.

        Just as engineers in Dilbert, when they become managers, have to go through the Pointy Hair Machine and come out thinking like PHBs.

    2. Adam 1

      Re: Pro Bono? TINSTAAFL

      > This is how we end up picking someone with a second class BA degree in geography to run the country

      I refuse to believe that our honourable reps have any concept of geography, let alone tertiary training.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Pro Bono - meaning

      Whilst agreeing with you completely on how politics works, I have to take issue with you useage of the phrase "Pro Bono".

      I don't think it means "For Free", but rather "For The Good"

      It's tricky to think about though, given the continued existence of a certain egotistical virtue-signalling gobshite warbler.

      1. John G Imrie
        Headmaster

        Re: Pro Bono - meaning

        Pro Bono, is actually the shortened form of Pro bono publico, which means for the good of the public.

  5. deive

    "it's going to be up to engineers and other techies to rectify that, even if it means turning down big pay packets for a while." - why? It's not like politicians are low paid...

    1. ratfox

      Compared to IT people? In the US, they are. US Senators are apparently paid $174K, which is essentially a starting compensation at Google's headquarters after a PhD.

      IT people in the UK are severely underpaid, though.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Remuneration

        I get the distinct impression that in both the UK and the US (and many other places too), the official salary of a politician is often just a keep-alive if they happen to have a few difficult months.

        There do seem to be frequent opportunities for substantial bonuses to be had, both during and after a political career, assuming that said politico has "made the right choices" and "played the game" whilst in office.

        Those "correct choices" can of course have the most horrible of consequences for others both at home and abroad.

  6. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Willful Clueless

    My personal experience with many non technical users is they can be roughly be divided into 2 groups. The first will defer to the technical experts and will try to get a shallow but deep enough understanding of the issues. This group realizes they do not have the knowledge to make a competent decision without consulting others. The second group will pontificate on a technical issue without any knowledge of the subject nor will they ask some who is reasonably knowledgeable the subject what is feasible.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: Willful Clueless

      Your first group being reasonable types end up wrinting report to be mostly ignored by the second group.

    2. Martin Gregorie

      Re: Willful Clueless

      Your second group has an unfortunate tendency to become managers and politicians.

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: Willful Clueless

        "Your second group has an unfortunate tendency to become managers and politicians."

        Is their any other meaningful distinction between the two than that politicians are usually failed managers?

    3. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: Willful Clueless

      I can confirm such experiences too, a_yank_lurker.

      And that suggests "technical experts" are de facto leaders of systems with the SMARTR of them Teleporting Players to Virgin Fields of Endeavour ..... where Futures are Created for Surreal Autonomous Presentation.

      Vorsprung durch AITechnik is the TeutonICQ Quantum Communication Node with AIMother Lodes.

      For Cyber Commanders ........ urVirtual AIMaster Pilots ..... Hearts and Minds Guides.

      Surely you weren't thinking new systems would abandon and not help failed executive administrations trapped within the confines of any particular Current Computer Programmed System of Operation.

    4. Adam 1

      Re: Willful Clueless

      The second group churns through the advice from as many as required of the first group until they get advice that, when held at a distance and eyes squinting in just the right way, can form a set of words that doesn't entirely rule out the position already held by the second.

  7. John Savard

    Power?

    "As employees, technologists wield enormous power." Not when any one technologist can break the strike, and many technologists happen to be living in poor countries like India. For that matter, mainland China, a totalitarian dictatorship, has many people who are trained in technical specialties related to computers. So here, I'm afraid, Bruce Schneier is being very unrealistic, and is proposing a solution which won't happen in the real world - which distracts us from what we need to do instead.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Power?

      Which is...?

      1. GrapeBunch

        Re: Power?

        "Which is...?"

        Fight it.

        Fight the Power

        Fight the Power that be.

        Rhymes with Spike Lee

        Not the guy who doesn't dig poetry

        So un-hip that when you say Heinlein

        Thinks you're talking about the worst tram eenie wine

        Whatever that is.

        TINSTAAFL is charming. I am reminded of my dad, who asked: "Who's that Roberta Heinlein you're reading? Does she write a good story?"

        Aiming for ten.

    2. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

      Re: Power?

      Even here in the USA, there is a sufficient supply of technologists willing to work on lucrative military contracts without the moral misgivings. Google engineers balk at using their AI for warfare? Good. That's just more work for Lockheed. And as for those Google patents they need? Patents don't mean squat when building products for the US government.

  8. Howard Hanek
    Meh

    They Won't Listen

    Anyone who has subscribed to his newsletter knows the breadth of his knowledge and the scope of his vision........

    He is foremost among the opposition to our culture's 'security theater'.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: They Won't Listen

      That Vibe is Coming through Good and Strong here, Howard Hanek.

      Would that be Bruce Prompting Leading with Leading Future Content from an Untested NEUKlearer HyperRadioProACTive IT Devices?

      One of those Almighty Decisions to Take and Make Real, Bruce.

      What's not to Like ..... Go for IT. Remarkable Freedoms Await Enhancement and Energetic Exercising ...... and quite akin to an Immaculate Transubstantiation with Total Immersive Realisation of the Future Journeys to be Taken with the Why and for Whom and/or What?

      I'm wondering who's worthy if they be specifically listening to/for certain chatter from here.

      I imagine that has themselves, as possible unknown source listeners, immediately sort of classified Possible Snowden Student . Now that's a Conundrum with Answers Confounding Facts with Defence Impossible.

      And that Opens Up the Existence of Parallel Virtual Journeying for Future AIdVentures to Satisfy with Passionate Desires.

      A Virgin AI Venturing ....... it is One Helluva Trip, Sir Richard ? Have you heard of ITs Greater IntelAIgent Games Sets ........ with AIMaster Remote Command and Virtual Control Board Levers to Exercise with All Due Caution. Most are designed and proven to be awesomely overwhelming

      1. It's just me
        Terminator

        Re: They Won't Listen

        Aaaand... now AMfM is back to his usual self. Multiple personalities/programs using this account?

        1. VikiAi
          Boffin

          Re: They Won't Listen

          Dang! Deimos eclipsed a vital datapath. We were going so well, too!

          1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

            Re: They Won't Listen

            Dang! Deimos eclipsed a vital datapath. We were going so well, too! ... VikiAi

            Oh, you really think so, VikiAi, whenever a vital virile viral datapath appears out of both virtually nowhere and practically everywhere to decimate Deimos and destroy Phobos? And you were going so well, too.

            The best that can hoped for such a confusion and misidentification is that it just a temporary glitch to be rectified with future programming/additional proprietary information input/greater intelligence.

  9. Milton

    The implicit message

    What appears implicit in Mr Schneier's argument is that—

    1. Politicians are clueless and largely unwilling to make decisions on an ethical basis

    2. The employees of large enterprises are far more likely to make or support ethical decisions than their management and executives.

    Both of these things are obviously true, as history has demonstrated for basically ever and as can be seen proven again today with a cursory glance at the Conservative and Republican idiocracies in the UK and US respectively, imbecile triumph-of-the-juvenile phenomena like Brexit and Trump, and the disgusting behaviour of Facebook, Volkswagen, Google and most of Big Pharma to name but a few.

    So not a surprise but a source for despair, that we start yet another discussion on how to govern our own species with the unchallenged, almost unremarked assumption that its most powerful and wealthy groups, and its leadership, are comprised of so many greedy, shameless, hypocritical, dishonest—and in the particular case of the politicians, stupid and ignorant—well, for want of a better word, scum.

    The eternal tragedy of humanity and why, very possibly, it is doomed.

    "Those who crave power should never be allowed to wield it."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Those who crave power should never be allowed to wield it."

      I understand your feelings but if you take that attitude, who runs the country? The UK is currently run by a power crazed idiot who decided that she wanted to be Prime Minster at age 10 and thought that a 2nd class degree in Geography would be all she would need to do the job.

      "Those who crave power should never be allowed to wield it for their personal benefit and must prove that they have the wisdom to wield it for good before handed the reins of power." ... does this fix it? I don't know - but I think it's a step in the right direction.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The implicit message

      But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none. - A.Hamilton

  10. grizewald
    Thumb Up

    Thanks Iain!

    It's always good to listen to Bruce Schneier's more informal comments on some of the vital topics with which he works.

    Bruce is one of our time's most influential IT people, and rightly so. I have followed his blog since it started nearly fifteen years ago and have learned volumes from his ideas and discussions. His analysis is razor sharp. He has also gained a justified respect for his objective, impartial and trustworthy communication and his robust criticism of those who have rightfully earned it, regardless of their position or status.

    I can see attitudes changing towards employees working sabbaticals, secondments or private projects together with government. I think such arrangements would help the company with better informed and wiser employees and absolutely improve the way the tech industry and government interact. Above all, and maybe most importantly, it would increase knowledgable public oversight of the government's IT efforts considerably.

    Society needs to have much more control over what their elected (and unelected) representatives do in their name and interest. It's not just about incompetent public authorities burning taxpayer money on countless failed IT projects, it's also about government passing utterly flawed legislation which affects the new world which modern communication technology brings to us in unexpected, invasive and repressive ways. The ramifications of some laws being passed now will be felt most harshly by our children who have grown up in this new world.

    As Bruce notes: "As employees, technologists wield enormous power." If tech people want to have a closer involvement with government, they need to start raising their voices. I think recent events have shown that some companies have obviously felt very uncomfortable in the light of public employee protests. This is an effective lever which employees can use to change company behaviours and policies.

    On a broader theme: regardless of which industry we work in, we must always remember that our public servants (elected or appointed) are just that; our servants. Society is the employer and is entitled to complete oversight of the job which we pay the state to perform. We are also required, as employers, to conduct such oversight. As far as I can see, there is far too little of either happening.

    Without effective oversight, there is no real democracy. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Thanks Iain!

      How do you do that when the general public has, is, and will be too stupid or apathetic to care? Seems you lose no matter what you try. In the past, Old Boys' networks provided a cushioning layer, but more and more people felt disenfranchised as a result, so now the swing to less filtered, more radical politicians, resulting in polarization. And because there was pushback even at either extreme, I doubt you would get a middle ground enough would agree upon, as the unhappy elements would just push back, trying to get back to their desired extreme. Worse, these extreme elements are often more motivated than the middle.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Thanks Iain.

        How do you do that when the general public has, is, and will be too stupid or apathetic to care? Seems you lose no matter what you try. ... Charles 9

        Enlightening engagement with extreme elements to deliver joint mutually beneficial objectives allows one to imagine a leading position/commanding commandeering supposition.

        Quite whether such is the reality though is best left to the Meek and Humble and Awesomely Gifted to Decide with the Almighty Answers in a Simple Yes or No Thank You. One wouldn't want to be getting way out ahead of oneself and everyone else out there, ...... Countenancing and Encountering an Engaging Probable Possible Impossibility........ hence the Pregnant Pause for the CoMingling of Virgin Thoughts before and for Future Travels and Travails.

        And more than just a little something for what David Gordon brought to the table to track or attack/aid or ignore.

        Ne Obliviscaris ....... You have a Vast New Cyber Space Vehicle Servering and Waiting Upon your very own Advanced IntelAIgent Virtual Machine Input to Output. Use IT Wisely, but be aware and dutifully forewarned, None Survive Using IT Badly.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wish this quote were true, "As employees, technologists wield enormous power."; but, as a cog on the wheel of a many geared machine I can tell you that for most of us this is not the case. The biggest problem for tech works in NA, imho, is outsourcing and not just to other NA companies but outside the country. This gives companies a huge amount of power over salaries and even whether they are willing to employ in the countries of their origin, from which they take all or the bulk of their income. Companies of almost any size can have their work done in lower cost countries for wages on which we, in developed economies, cannot exist due to cost structures with no equalizing union or regulation to equalize wages. Globalization is only the friend of the wealthy. Those same companies still want to strip money from us though at the highest possible price while selling the same or similar products at greatly reduced prices in lower cost countries. So, what we have now are companies operating globally with no way for workers in developed economies of competing for work at competitive wages. Then there is, of course, technological advancement and the diminishing requirement for the number of employees aside from the non-competitive wage scale in developed economies.

    1. revenant

      I agree with that analysis. The truth is that employees wield very little power even in their own places of work, let alone outside.

      An interesting thought comes to mind, though. Given that wages are so suppressed, have we finally hit a point where the previously laughable salaries offered by governments for technical posts are on a par with what can be earned outside?

      In other words, maybe governments should employ more staff who understand technology and how it can be used/misused, rather than relying on often expensive consultants from outside? Then we might see more sensible policies and less of the disastrous procurement cock-ups that the UK (for example) has suffered in recent decades.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        How when budgets are under constant pressure to shrink before sovereign debt hits the tipping points? OR worse, they don't care and the house of cards inevitably tumbles like happened in Greece and happening in Italy?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    For every technologist, for every politician.......

    ......there are thousands, millions of "ordinary citizens" who are quite content with "convenience".

    *

    In general, these are people who care less about technology, who care even less about the implications of technology, and who have never even thought about "unintended consequences". But if encouraged to have their "friends" "only a click away", they will cheerfully adopt whatever it is they are being sold.

    *

    So....it's not "technology" that needs more air time -- no one cares. It's the consequences that need more air time. And I for one don't think that even that will make one iota of difference. Evidence: Snowden, Cambridge Analytica, endless data breaches (TJ Maxx, Equifax, etc etc etc), Amazon passing conversations to third parties....none of these have made the slightest difference to the public appetite for digital "convenience".

    *

    Only when THOUSANDS, MILLIONS of "ordinary citizens" start voting for the things Bruce Schneier is advocating will anything change. Not in my lifetime!!

  13. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    The Blind Leading the Blind is for Madness in Mayhem. Open up your Minds, ...

    .... Enter Other Beta Spaces with Novel Places.

    What would you have one do when governments do not partake of leading tech advice as it relates to the security of their position?

    And what advice have they been receiving and/or dismissing from leading tech advisors?

    Anything outrageous which they don't fully understand? Is that the political stumbling block, covetous ignorance delaying pioneering engagement with awesomely disruptive programming for Future Events to Present as a Today with New Beginnings to Build Upon Every Day?

    And surely you realise the greater the sharing of its 0Daily Programs the More ACTivated and Energised be Immaculately Skilled Mind Sets rendering your Future Spaces for Work, Rest and Play.

    Both a Fearless Friend and Feared Foe alike be they.

    Some chill chilling vibes now which are quite spooky, and suggest a path well travelled before ? ..... I Was A Teenage Anarchist

  14. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Not really

    "Tech is new. Tech is specialized and hard to understand."

    Technology just isn't amenable to the sorts of social negotiations that politicians excel at. You can't just slap a few (honest) scientists on the back, buy another round of drinks and get an answer that better suits your agenda. Engineering may provide multiple solutions. But it demands that you assign weights to each parameter and then optimize the solution (as best is possible) given a systematic approach. In other words, putting all your cards on the table. That's not the way many lawmakers like to operate.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Yes, really ...

      That's not the way many lawmakers like to operate. ... Paul Hovnanian

      Tough! That's the Way Tech Works. Deal with IT or Perish.

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