Cybersecurity Canon Candidate Book Review: The Circle

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We modeled the Cybersecurity Canon after the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, except it’s a canon for cybersecurity books. We have more than 25 books on the initial candidate list, but we are soliciting help from the cybersecurity community to increase the number. Please write a review and nominate your favorite. 

 

The Cybersecurity Canon is a real thing for our community. We have designed it so that you can directly participate in the process. Please do so!

Executive Summary

The organizational consultant Simon Sinek described millennials’ engagement with social media as a dopamine addiction. It is the same chemical that feels good when we smoke, when we drink, and when we gamble. In other words, it is highly addictive. At first glance, this seems to be the world we are observing when we enter David Eggers’s The Circle.

The Circle is the story of Mae Holland, a fresh new employee at the Circle. A recent college graduate, Mae worked for a year at a mundane job at a utilities company before her friend Annie, a junior executive at the Circle, helped Mae find a job.

Here we enter the world of the Circle. At first glance, it seems Utopian: Gourmet chefs prepare meals, famous musical artists perform at free concerts and each employee’s health is monitored closely.   However, Mae soon begins to realize that the organization seems to be more interested in her social media interactions than her physical self. Whenever Mae goes offline, the company gently reprimands Mae for her selfishness. It seems that in the world of the Circle, “secrets are lies.”

As the story progresses, Mae falls deeper and deeper into the world of “Demoxie.” It is a world where everything appears visible but is actually controlled from within the Circle. As stated by one of the protagonists of the novel and Circle co-founder Ty Gospodinov, “Under the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filter-less society where secrets are crime.”

The Circle starts off as a seemingly casual summer read, but as it progresses, you discover a deeply dystopian world where the dopamine of social media controls the general public. What might have seemed like science fiction in 2013 certainly seems possible today with the recent headline news of Cambridge Analytica/Facebook. I found this book to be an entertaining read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who deals with privacy in his or her job or is interested in the subject.

Review

The Circle is not necessarily a must read for all security professionals. There is nothing here that will make you more valuable to your organization. However, as a security professional, it is important that we occasionally step back from the packets and the logs and take a look at what impact technology and our work has on society.  Like most dystopian novels, there is a clear lesson to be taken away from this novel.   Though many will enjoy this novel as a casual read, if you look deeper, there is a clear message here.

The Circle is the story of Mae Holland. Mae is a 24-year-old recent college grad who becomes disenchanted with her pace of growth at a utility company. Mae convinces her friend, Annie Allerton, to get her a job at the Circle. Mae starts off as a customer service representative. Her interactions are all through social media, and she is judged based on the score she gets from the people she helps. Though anything above a 90 is considered good, a 100 is really the only acceptable score.

As we follow Mae through her first month on the job, we see the pressure begin to build on her to share all aspects of her personal life. It starts slowly with her being encouraged to share pictures of her kayaking trips and leads to a much deeper intrusion on her privacy. She is asked to wear a health monitor so that her vitals can be monitored at all times. The Circle learns of her father’s Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and offers to help with treatment and counseling.

Though Mae finds this strange, she is pulled deeper into the Circle. She strives to up her social standing and spends countless hours pushing her ranking higher and higher. As her social popularity grows, we see her interactions with the people outside of the Circle begin to wane. Mae begins to align with her fellow co-workers and believes that “secrets are lies” and that nobody should have a right to privacy or solitude.

Mae agrees to wear a SeeChange device, which is a camera that records her every movement. The only solitude that she finds is when she goes to the bathroom or when she sleeps at night. It is when she starts wearing this camera that we find her begin to give up her personal privacy. When a fellow co-worker records their sexual activity, she is at first outraged. However, the pressure of conformity forces her to accept this as a norm, and we find her giving up more and more of her personal self.

Mae’s family and her former boyfriend, Mercer, warn her of the danger of these actions, but her celebrity status on social media overwhelms her. She spends all of her time performing in front of her audience and even begins to castigate her family and Mercer for not performing with her.

It is an interesting read at this point. It is easy to sit back and criticize Mae and her behavior. In fact, at many times throughout the book I found myself disliking Mae. She willingly lets herself be pulled into the Circle. She finds herself trying to appease people she has never met in real life. Her real-life relationship suffers, and she even begins to push away Annie, the very person who helped bring her into the Circle. She forces her own family into hiding and, in the end, her enthusiasm for bringing all into the Circle leads to tragedy for Mercer.

However, this very review will likely be tweeted out, and I will closely observe how many retweets, “Likes” and comments I receive. It will also likely show up on LinkedIn, where I can observe how many people shared it and commented on it. There will be a full breakdown of post analytics, where I will learn how many views, comments, likes and shares it received. I will even know which companies viewed my post most often. If I am really lucky, I might get a few more LinkedIn connections so that my future posts can reach an even wider audience.

The way that most interact with social media is not that far from where Mae ends up. Though there are some very good uses for social media, there is clearly a down side to it as well. As the famous identity thief turned FBI consultant, Frank Abagnale, once stated, “Someday people will realize that Facebook and Instagram weren’t good things. Any time you’re controlling the psychology of 2 billion people, it becomes really dangerous … one day we’ll wake up and know that wasn’t a good thing to do.”

 

Conclusion

The Circle will not necessarily make you a better security professional. Be that as it may, as security professionals, we do have an obligation to think about the consequences of the human-technology interaction. As we can clearly see today, the press argues about who knew what about the Russian interference with our last election. This is exactly what social media is conditioning us to argue about instead of the real problem, which is that another country manipulated our election — regardless of the outcome. At first, I considered this a light read, but in the end, it made me wonder if social media will not become the vehicle for an Orwellian version of the war between Oceania and Eurasia. Social media too often serves to widen division instead of opening the door for intelligent discourse.

The post Cybersecurity Canon Candidate Book Review: The Circle appeared first on Palo Alto Networks Blog.

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