Technology and Society

Book Reviews
What's New
Privacy & Individual Rights
Commerce, Security, & the Law
Net Culture, Art, & Literature
International Affairs & National Security
Ethics, Rhetoric, & Metaphysics
Science Fiction

Other Resources
Other Book Review Sites

Title: The Myth of Homeland Security
Author: Marcus J. Ranum
Publisher: Wiley
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-471-45879-1
Pages: 244
Price: $25.00
Rating: 50%

Homeland security is one of those newspeak terms that covers a lot of areas. Since 9/11, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in the US, Americans have learned to take off their shoes when boarding airplanes, eat with plastic knives and forks, and stash their knitting needles in their checked-in luggage. But how effective are these and other measures? Do they actually stop terrorists? Do they even pretend to do so, or are they simply high-profile feel-good measures designed to show the public that the government is doing something? As the author of this new book says, "Have we embarked on a massive multibillion-dollar boondoggle that's going to do nothing more than make us feel more secure?" 

Computer security expert Marcus Ranum examines the issues of homeland security, its goals, its applications, and its limits. This outspoken author will certainly ruffle feathers with this book. Aspiring to be the Rush Limbaugh (or Michael Moore; pick one according to your political leanings) of computer security, and security in general, he has harsh criticism of just about everyone in the field, from individuals to organizations, to the nebulous military-industrial complex. 

In Ranum's eyes, almost everyone responsible for security at any level - be they in corporations or in the government - is a clueless idiot. This insistence greatly detracts from the arguments he presents, as he focuses on negatives, offering few suggestions for improvement. It is naturally easy to criticize, but takes a great deal more thought to offer ideas. 

This book also suffers from its computer book layout - with sidebars, large-font quotes and "did you know" boxes, it looks too much like an Idiot's Guide, and reads like a tabloid newspaper. In addition, I have trouble taking seriously an author who says, "I don't want you, the reader, to ignore the substance of what I have to say by getting bogged down in the details of my research. So I didn't quote sources." Apparently, Ranum has never heard of end notes. "When you read a piece of legislation, and the ACLU says one thing about it and the Department of Justice another, what's the point in citing your sources?" he asks. Well, dear author, the point is to be taken seriously. 

Homeland security is a complex issue, and Ranum doesn't seem to have the credentials for talking about much of what it entails. As a computer security specialist, he knows how terrorism can affect computers, but says that "the best description of the information warfare defense process is a kind of Chicken Little make-work program for Beltway bandits and high-tech firms." He later states that "the whole idea of cyber war is really just a bunch of marketing malarkey cooked up by computer security product salespeople, Cold War-era info security practitioners who are trying to modernize their mission, and media whores." So, after clearly saying that computer security is not an issue - and removing any validity for his voice in this discussion - he nevertheless spends a third of the book talking about keeping computers secure.  

Ranum rightly rails against the media for blowing many events out of proportion, and for becoming a self-perpetuating hydra that is constantly in search of new and thrilling content. But he pays no mind to the amount of sensationalism he presents to sell his own book, and its layout is certainly not designed for pensive reading. Each of the called-out quotes, in huge, bold characters - and there's one every few pages - is designed like a sound bite, the perfect bits and pieces to feed the media and invite him on CNN. 

When Ranum does make suggestions for improving homeland security, he switches to Orwellian mode: he advocates a national ID card, with each person required to give fingerprints and DNA samples, and suggests that visitors only receive visas after they submit DNA samples. He even suggests that no one be allowed to have a job, buy a car or make a purchase greater than $100 without such an ID. 

Ranum's world is not one that I want to live in. And his book is a diatribe with lots of anger, and little thought, against what is indeed a flawed system, but one that could do with constructive criticism rather than a voice that flails its insults in all directions and offers no valid solutions.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn ( is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site,