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A hacker’s mind : how the powerful bend society’s rules, and how to bend them back
Schneier B., W. W. Norton, New York, NY, 2023. 304 pp. Type: Book (0393866661)
Date Reviewed: Mar 29 2023

By thinking like a hacker, that is, understanding why and how complex systems can fail by finding and taking unfair advantage of imperfections, we might be able to minimize or eliminate unwanted and potentially catastrophic misuse. Common examples of complex systems include technologies like computer operating systems and applications, and physical infrastructures like space telescopes and nuclear power plants. But there are many other types, including financial markets and economies, political and legal systems, and even human cognitive and emotional brain states. And all of these systems, imperfectly designed, constructed, or evolved, have bugs that can be exploited by bad actors, or “hackers” as such are commonly called.

Schneier is well known in the computer security community, writing and consulting in such areas as privacy, cryptography, and technology safety issues [1]. His newest book, A hacker’s mind, recalls the concepts of computer debugging and applies them to social systems to reveal and discuss their vulnerabilities. While the examples are short and written for a general readership, collectively they paint a broad picture of how system design flaws and errors, and those who take advantage of them, can seriously threaten society.

The author starts with a brief chapter on hacking, noting that it is not necessarily of evil intent. In fact, hacking is frequently used to thoroughly understand how something works (though the process often discovers exploitable bugs). He follows this with numerous examples of hacking large rule-based systems, including the US Tax Code, automated teller machines (ATMs) and banks, voting and legislation, and even human perceptions and fears.

Few solutions are presented other than increased government oversight and preventive intervention, which sets up Schneier’s final, critically important chapter on the threat of artificial intelligence (AI), warning that AI-enabled hacking can become an existential threat to humanity, echoing his contemporary Bill Joy about the self-inflicted dangers of our creations.

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Reviewer:  Harry J. Foxwell Review #: CR147567 (2305-0058)
1) Schneier, B. Schneier on security. Wiley, Indianapolis, IN, 2008.
2) Joy, B. Why the future doesn’t need us. Wired, (Apr. 1, 2000),
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