Black Hat: 'Angell Of Doom' Bashes Control Freaks

In a Wednesday keynote speech at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Angell drove home the point that computer systems are imperfect and will always be out of human and technological control, no matter how hard we try to make it otherwise.

"All computer systems are intrinsically flawed and can only ever have a transitory utility. If you place faith in computerized systems, it's asking for trouble," Angell said.

The big problem with the IT industry, according to Angell, is that it fails to understand that complexity is important to the natural order of things, and instead attempts to use technology to get rid of complexity.

"The madness of our particular age is the delusion that our world can be controlled and managed by using the pseudo science of technology. This is the madness of control freaks," Angell said.

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Computer bureaucracy is highly effective in normal situations, but there are always singular situations that don't fit the rules, Angell said. That's one cause of what Angell called the Glass Cockpit Syndrome, in which humans rely too much on systems without exercising any judgment. The ensuing information overload leads to ignored information, which in turn, leads to trouble down the road, he said.

"Control freaks don't appreciate that their actions trigger an uncertainty principle. Pointing mathematical insights at complexity in a non-linear world can only create more complexity," Angell said.

The profiling technology used by many Web retailers and social networking companies to predict tastes of consumers is a prime example of how more and more decision making is happening as a result of numerical calculations, according to Angell.

"When you treat similarity as sameness, and assume that all comparisons between are absolute facts, then you have a problem," Angell said. "The trouble is, we are trapped, because that's what human beings do. Categories are our way of differentiating meaning."

Searching for the right numerical equation for the future is not different from numerology or astrology, and just as prone to inaccuracies, Angell said. "Putting data on a computer amplifies the errors. Numbers are like people: Torture them enough and they will tell you anything," Angell said.

Angell also trained the crosshairs on human beings' tendency to categorize information, as well as the IT industry's database-driven approach to organizing information.

"When we categorize, we separate each data object from everything else. In that way, we can model and therefore control the world with science and technology," said Angell. "But whenever we make a database, and categorize, we always introduce uncertainty."

For example, Angell said criminal databases used for forensics could be manipulated if criminals were to randomly scatter DNA samples around a crime scene, Angell said. The crime scene in this case would be "totally compromised", as would the entire system of DNA profiling, Angell said.

Despite the anti-technology theme of much of his speech, Angell insisted that he's not against technology, just the impractical aims to which it's being applied today in certain IT industry circles. "Of course there are benefits, but we must remember that technology is part of the problem, not the solution," he said.

"There are no solutions, only contingencies. Only neurotics think they can use technology to control the uncertainties implicit in the real world."