Home > data science, economics, journalism, modeling, rant > A critique of a review of a book by Bruce Schneier

A critique of a review of a book by Bruce Schneier

March 17, 2015

I haven’t yet read Bruce Schneier’s new book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data and Control Your World. I plan to in the coming days, while I’m traveling with my kids for spring break.

Even so, I already feel capable of critiquing this review of his book (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg), written by Columbia Business School Professor and Investment Banker Jonathan Knee. You see, I’m writing a book myself on big data, so I feel like I understand many of the issues intimately.

The review starts out flattering, but then it hits this turn:

When it comes to his specific policy recommendations, however, Mr. Schneier becomes significantly less compelling. And the underlying philosophy that emerges — once he has dispensed with all pretense of an evenhanded presentation of the issues — seems actually subversive of the very democratic principles that he claims animates his mission.

That’s a pretty hefty charge. Let’s take a look into Knee’s evidence that Schneier wants to subvert democratic principles.


First, he complains that Schneier wants the government to stop collecting and mining massive amounts of data in its search for terrorists. Knee thinks this is dumb because it would be great to have lots of data on the “bad guys” once we catch them.

Any time someone uses the phrase “bad guys,” it makes me wince.

But putting that aside, Knee is either ignorant of or is completely ignoring what mass surveillance and data dredging actually creates: the false positives, the time and money and attention, not to mention the potential for misuse and hacking. Knee’s opinion on that is simply that we normal citizens just don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether it works, including Schneier, and in spite of Schneier knowing Snowden pretty well.

It’s just like waterboarding – Knee says – we can’t be sure it isn’t a great fucking idea.

Wait, before we move on, who is more pro-democracy, the guy who wants to stop totalitarian social control methods, or the guy who wants to leave it to the opaque authorities?

Corporate Data Collection

Here’s where Knee really gets lost in Schneier’s logic, because – get this – Schneier wants corporate collection and sale of consumer data to stop. The nerve. As Knee says:

Mr. Schneier promotes no less than a fundamental reshaping of the media and technology landscape. Companies with access to large amounts of personal data would be “automatically classified as fiduciaries” and subject to “special legal restrictions and protections.”

That these limits would render illegal most current business models — under which consumers exchange enhanced access by advertisers for free services – does not seem to bother Mr. Schneier”

I can’t help but think that Knee cannot understand any argument that would threaten the business world as he knows it. After all, he is a business professor and an investment banker. Things seem pretty well worked out when you live in such an environment.

By Knee’s logic, even if the current business model is subverting democracy – which I also argue in my book – we shouldn’t tamper with it because it’s a business model.

The way Knee paints Schneier as anti-democratic is by using the classic fallacy in big data which I wrote about here:

Although professing to be primarily preoccupied with respect of individual autonomy, the fact that Americans as a group apparently don’t feel the same way as he does about privacy appears to have little impact on the author’s radical regulatory agenda. He actually blames “the media” for the failure of his positions to attract more popular support.

Quick summary: Americans as a group do not feel this way because they do not understand what they are trading when they trade their privacy. Commercial and governmental interests, meanwhile, are all united in convincing Americans not to think too hard about it. There are very few people devoting themselves to alerting people to the dark side of big data, and Schneier is one of them. It is a patriotic act.

Also, yes Professor Knee, “the media” generally speaking writes down whatever a marketer in the big data world says is true. There are wonderful exceptions, of course.

So, here’s a question for Knee. What if you found out about a threat on the citizenry, and wanted to put a stop to it? You might write a book and explain the threat; the fact that not everyone already agrees with you wouldn’t make your book anti-democratic, would it?


The rest of the review basically boils down to, “you don’t understand the teachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior like I do.”

Do you know about Godwin’s law, which says that as soon as someone invokes the Nazis in an argument about anything, they’ve lost the argument?

I feel like we need another, similar rule, which says, if you’re invoking MLK and claiming the other person is misinterpreting him while you have him nailed, then you’ve lost the argument.

  1. March 17, 2015 at 8:31 am

    On the issue of false positives when using mass surveillance, I did some back of the envelope maths to highlight this point. http://bayesianbiologist.com/2013/06/06/how-likely-is-the-nsa-prism-program-to-catch-a-terrorist/ (wherein I use the term ‘bad guy’ with tongue firmly in cheek). Really looking forward to your book, Cathy!


  2. Dan Kronstadt
    March 17, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Cathy: you said “Knee’s opinion on that is simply that we normal citizens just don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether it works.” Can’t we all agree that “whether it works” has nothing to do with “whether it’s constitutional”? There are lots of things the gub’mint could do that would be effective in stopping terrorism – for example, putting microphones and cameras in every building in the nation, and hiring 10 million of us to listen and watch – but that would not make them permissible. (Well, maybe that wouldn’t be that effective, but you get my drift.)

    Always enjoy your writing and your Slate Money podcast participation!


  3. Min
    March 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    “Americans as a group do not feel this way because they do not understand what they are trading when they trade their privacy.”

    Well worth repeating. 🙂

    “Knee thinks this is dumb because it would be great to have lots of data on the “bad guys” once we catch them.”

    Does Knee realize that he being an apologist for the Stasi?


  4. Aaron Lercher
    March 17, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Knee harrumphs, “The fundamental premise of this line of thought is that a citizen who breaks an unjust law must serve as an example and accept the consequences.”

    Someone can commit civil disobedience and be acquitted, or not be prosecuted, and yet make a strong and legitimate political argument by that civil disobedience. OWS is only the most prominent recent example. Those who don’t like a political message will always deny that protesters have standing to speak, which is all Knee is doing in his review.


  5. msobel
    March 17, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Good second order review. It sounds like a Swift defense of business models and gave rise to:

    A Modest Proposal

    Since the Afordable Care Act has interfered with payout management for pre-existing conditions, big data presents an alternative. A health insurance company could use all the medical and lifestyle data available (food purchases, prescriptions, bar tabs, gas consumption, medical marijuana registration, etc.) to look at the probability of payoff for each insured individual and outsource a hit on those who represent sufficient business risk. This could be coordinated with a “dead peasant” life insurance policy, which would be perfectly legal since the health insurer has a financial interest in the pre-deceased individual.


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