Trust: Reputation vs. Verification


No higher power is capable of building roads and forming nations. Neither are individuals. The strength of society arises from our ability to cooperate— to arrive at a consensus on whom to elect, what to build, and where to go. Society would not function if we were unable to trust each other.

The dollar bill says” In God We Trust” but it should really say” In People We Trust.” Politicians, bankers, and employers are woven into the fabric of our financial system. Whether through guns, vaults, or policy, we expect these people to ensure the money in our pocket is secure in value and ownership. This is no easy task, but the reputation of institutions like Chase and the U.S. government provides us with confidence that our life savings will be protected.

However, reputation is not reliability; it is a proxy. Reputation makes no guarantees, all reputation does is provide us with an indication of how trustworthy these institutions were in the past. * In a reputation-based system, we make current decisions on old data. This is fine when the stakes are low and attackers are weak, but this is the digital age where the stakes are both immense and instantaneous. One second your life savings can be “secure” in the cloud and the next second they can be whisked away across Tor. **

Reputation is a good start, but it's a terrible end. Confusing reputation for reliability compromises the security of the things we value most. So, what’s the alternative? How do we trust one another in the absence of reputation? We don’t. We verify. In the case of our financial system, that means using cryptocurrency instead of Chase. *** In the case of our government, that means verifying partisan figures with research. In the case of our relationships, that means actions matter more than words. Etc. You get the idea.

Don’t trust. Verify.

*Although one could argue that Chase’s stellar reputation is undeserved considering the, uh… 2008 Great Recession and their history of market manipulation.

** A private web router that circumvents censorship.

*** This is not a plug for crypto. This is a plug for verification.