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Communications of the ACM

Practice

Who Must You Trust?


Who Must You Trust? illustration

Credit: Michael Glenwood

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In his novel The Diamond Age,5 Neal Stephenson describes a constructed society (called a phyle) based on extreme trust in one's fellow members. One of the membership requirements is that, from time to time, each member is called upon to undertake tasks to reinforce that trust. For example, a phyle member might be told to go to a particular location at the top of a cliff at a specific time, where he will find bungee cords with ankle harnesses attached. The other ends of the cords trail off into the bushes. At the appointed time he is to fasten the harnesses to his ankles and jump off the cliff. He has to trust the unseen fellow phyle member who was assigned the job of securing the other end of the bungee to a stout tree actually did his job; otherwise, he will plummet to his death. A third member secretly watches to make sure the first two do not communicate in any way, relying only on trust to keep tragedy at bay.

Whom you trust, what you trust them with, and how much you trust them are at the center of the Internet today, as well as every other aspect of your technological life.


 

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