Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


The Man Who Shocked the World

I’ve recently finished The Man Who Shocked the World, a biography of Stanley Milgram. The book’s title refers to the “Authority Experiments,” wherein a researcher pressured a subject to deliver shocks to a victim. The subjects of the experiments, despite expressing feelings that what they were doing was wrong, were generally willing to continue.
Other work Milgram did lead to the “six degrees of separation” meme, insight into mental maps of cities, the “lost letter” technique of assessing public opinion, and the concept of the “familiar stranger.” He was outstanding at creating illuminating experiments in social science.
I learned in reading this book that Milgram had enormous difficulty getting grants. The review committees who essentially gatekeep over government grants wanted him to work from a theory. (Its not clear from the book if they thought research should support a theory, or correctly understood that great research involves undercutting a theory.)
There’s an interesting tie to computer security here, in that there is a group of researchers who do nothing but interesting experiments, whose results and replicability are shared through what is variously called demonstration code, “POC” (proof-of-concept), or “sploit” (short for exploit) code. Many of these researchers use pseudonyms in their publication, and are considered annoying by the computer security establishment (both commercial and academic), whose work they poke holes in.
In contrast, I think these researchers do an important service by demonstrating how security can be broken. If you consider the hypothesis “This software is resistant to attack,” a few bytes of exploit code is an elegant refutation.