What could be warmer and fuzzier than “trust”? Between two human beings, it’s a hard-won bond that binds them together. In society, it is a currency that helps create a prosperous and efficient economy and culture, as thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama and Bruce Schneier have argued. But recently the word has taken on a new cast of ambiguity, and seems to be fast becoming the newest entry in the lexicon of Orwellian formulations, along with such once purely warm and positive words such as “security,” “defense,” and “intelligence.”
For example, some usages of “trust” include:
The basic dynamic here is that trust is being reapplied from people to machines. In order to trust a machine, one must block anyone’s ability to change, disguise, or spoof its identity, to program a computer to appear to be something that it is not, or deploy a whole host of other tricks and stratagems that can be used for ill by hackers.
That can be good in some circumstances—but all of those “hacker” stratagems are also a source of freedom. They are what allow a person to communicate anonymously online, or to look at a web page without being tracked and recorded. To block such possibilities with mathematical certainty, government or companies must fundamentally alter the nature of a computer, turning it from a “Turing Machine” whose operator can use it to run an infinite number of arbitrary programs, into something less
In short, building a machine that can be “trusted” is a pretty close equivalent to building a machine that is protected against control by humans who are distinctly not being trusted. In the human world, “trust” means that you are willing to allow another person more control, because you trust them. But in its new formulation, it means precisely the opposite: that control is being taken away from you.
There are other, broader uses of the word “trust,” outside the computing context, that carry similarly Orwellian overtones. For example:
Like the computer examples, these usages contain the word “trust” but imply its opposite: a broad increase in government power over ordinary people, rather than a granting of more power to those people.
Now that I think of it, “trust” became a dirty word already for a previous generation of Americans—the Populists and Progressives who learned that the newly gigantic corporate “trusts” were a new form of power over individuals that needed to be curbed, leading to the emergence of a whole new area of law called “antitrust” as well as “trust busters” like Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps today’s crusaders for digital freedom can be thought of as the newest “trust busters.”
In the current and future battles over security, identity, digital freedom, and privacy, the newly ambiguous usage of “trust” reflects the longstanding struggle to find the right balance betweeen order and liberty as we search for the ideal of a society based on “ordered liberty.”