Today we begin a new discussion on trust, security, and privacy.  If these topics are of interest to you, stay tuned to the blog and subscribe to the FullStory newsletter above ⤴.

When was the last time you really thought about trust? Trust is one of those concepts you just get ... only when you look closer, it can be hard to express what it means. In our Internet age, as we rely on devices using ever newer and more complex technology, getting trust right is critical.

That's why we’re exploring the topic of trust today. And to do that, we’ve got to ask a few questions. We've got to go for a ride.

Do You Trust Drivers?

We spend so much time in cars. The folks at AAA estimate the average American driver is spending almost 300 hours on the road each year. Almost from the day we’re born, we're carried around in these heavy, wheeled and steeled boxes, each loaded with combustible materials and built to travel at high speeds right alongside other fast-moving vehicles.

It's scary.

As for those other vehicles—the cars, buses, trucks, and trailers—they’re similarly equipped, making them just as potentially deadly. But they’re driven by total strangers. Even teenagers, known for being careless and clueless, are allowed to get behind the wheel and go for a ride.

Yet we don’t panic at the sight of other vehicles on the road. We trust other drivers—and drive on.

Do You Trust Car Manufacturers?

A lot goes into making a car. Car manufacturers—from Toyota to Ford and BMW to Porsche—bear responsibility for these powerful, dangerous products.

Thousands of engineering decisions are made regarding a car's design. Countless manufacturing processes come together to make sure the car actually works. What finally rolls off the assembly line must move passengers from one point to another safely over thousands of miles and years of service—all without failing catastrophically and harming people.

Wheels, windows, seats, mirrors, transmissions, engines, and the other 30,000 parts must come together in precisely the right way to create a specific automobile. It’s an immense amount of complexity that has to work.

Yet we aren’t overwhelmed by it: We trust car manufacturers to do their job.

Do You Trust Suppliers to Car Manufacturers?

The chain of trust doesn’t stop. Consider that not all component parts in automobiles are manufactured by the company responsible for the vehicle that rolls off the assembly line. Components are frequently outsourced and built by suppliers for specific car manufacturers. Car manufacturers use these third-party supply chains whenever it makes sense.

For example, say the manufacturer’s core competency is engine design. Their transmissions, however, are expensive to make and prone to breaking down. So they contract the transmission to be built by a supplier. They select a transmission manufacturer who can meet their desired specifications at a better price and higher quality. The car manufacturer outsources this part of the vehicle and builds a better product.

Relying on third parties is an outcome of an economic system that combines division of labor, competition, specialization, trade, and all the rest. Everything comes together in a decentralized symphony. And though things can and sometimes do go wrong, for the most part, it goes right.

And so we trust the suppliers to car manufacturers—even if they’re invisible.

What is Trust—And How Does it Work?

It's a lot to take in. That’s a lot of trust. And unless you've opted out of roads, you're living this trust every time you take to the street. Beyond the trust we place in drivers, car manufacturers, and component suppliers, we trust our neighbors, co-workers, and friends.

We extend trust all the time.

Society could not exist without trust. Trust enables us to work toward common goals. It binds us together. Remove trust and relying on anyone for anything becomes impossible. Imagine it. In a world without trust, you’d have to do everything yourself, unable to ask others for help—even if you were willing to help them. Remove trust from your life and you'll soon freeze up with uncertainty. You'll become incapable of using any product or service and unable to rely on any cultural norms or any standards of behavior.

Why is trust so ingrained in our lives? Perhaps because trust deals with our ability to predict the future. When we make predictions, we lean on previous experiences. Based on what’s happened in the past, we project into the future what we think will happen going forward. This helps us set expectations—little faith-based bets—and when our expectations are met, our trust is rewarded.

Trust deals with our ability to predict the future.

Now, should our expectations not be met, there’s a good chance we lose our ability to hold those same expectations again. Once uncertainty rears its anxiety-inducing head, it becomes hard to make clear predictions about the future.

Once trust is lost, it's often impossible to get it back.

In addition to making predictions, trust is also the belief others can align their interests and desires with ours. Here, trust is believing others won’t act in a way that hurts us—or subjects us to harm.

Trust is believing others can align their interests with ours.

While these facets of trust make sense in theory, do they work in practice? Let’s apply it to cars and drivers:

  • For drivers, a mutual interest is shared: every driver wants to get from point A to point B safely. Drivers align interests through self-preservation. Since driving recklessly and having an accident is as likely to hurt the reckless driver as it is to hurt someone else, exercising caution makes sense. Relying on our self-knowledge and extending empathy to other drivers, we are able to extend trust—at least until another driver demonstrates they’re not worth being trusted.
  • For car manufacturers, trust is about meeting the expectations of drivers: drivers expect car manufacturers to care about building safe, functional vehicles. Drivers want to go from point A to point B safely and predictably. Drivers make predictions about car manufacturers by observing those brands drive safely on the road—or by reading reviews and reports. In a market where information flows, word-of-mouth ensures the best products will win. And should a car manufacturer build a dangerous, underperforming vehicle, word-of-mouth will also ensure that company is punished through poor sales.
  • For car component suppliers, drivers extend trust by proxy through their trust in car manufacturers. Generally, drivers trust car manufacturers to care enough about their brand and business (See the second bullet) that they will take exceptional care in selecting suppliers who likewise meet expectations.

It sure takes a lot of reasoning to establish trust—a lot of boxes to check—and still somehow we check all of these boxes ... And we do it all the time.

Or maybe we don't. When did you last audit all of the above interdependencies before getting behind the wheel of a car—or even just walking down a street? Could you even do it if you wanted to? When you think it over, you hope car manufacturers are doing their diligence on their manufacturing processes, components, and third-party suppliers. You hope other drivers on the road value their safety just like you.

But you don’t know—really, you can’t.

There's a problem with this complex system of trust: none of us are going through the above “trust audit” before getting behind the wheel of a car.

Where does that leave us? If building trust through auditing the entire chain of responsible parties isn’t possible, something else must be going on.

There must be some other element to trust—something that simplifies the system.

What might that be?

Take a Look Around … Who Do You Trust?

I remember the first time I went to India. Groggy from 30 hours of travel across multiple airports and time zones, we piled our luggage into the back of an SUV at the New Delhi airport and took off to our hotel. Vehicles were everywhere, going in every direction.

If you’ve never experienced traffic in India, it may be hard to imagine the experience. Cars, rickshaws, scooters, buses, bikes, cows, trucks, and more … they all come together to share roadspace. It’s truly anarchy on the road.

During those first few moments in a new country, my mind reeled to make sense of it all. Crammed into the back of that SUV, I was a bit terrified. Dodging and weaving. Honking and braking. It seemed as though we were about to get in an accident at any given moment.

Then I looked around and noticed something. Both the driver and my father-in-law were completely calm. Looking out at the drivers and riders of all types in all the other vehicles—vehicles you could often touch if you reached out the window—it was the same.

Everyone was calm.

Everyone simply rolled with it. Some magic was at play. Something was putting everyone’s mind at ease.

Can you fit an entire family on a motorcycle? Sure. Want to ride sideways in a sari on a scooter? Why not. Everyone on every conceivable vehicle is sharing the road. No one is worried. That’s trust.

As soon as I noticed that everyone seemed perfectly fine, I calmed down, too. Soon, my fear was replaced by fascination. And by the end of the trip, I was riding shotgun on a motorcycle on these same busy streets. This is fine. This is fun.

What my experience on the roads of India taught me about trust is that while we can think our way into trusting, trust is not so much analyzed as it is absorbed.

— We realize we aren’t the first ones to drive a car.
— We draw on a lifetime of experiences riding in cars, safely getting from point A to point B.
— We know the cars on the road are the products of over a hundred years of iteration and improvement.

... And more ... all of the things we know deeply from experience.

Though none of our prior experiences need cross our mind, they’re all there in the background, invisible to our conscious minds yet powerfully important. We just know that everything is okay.

And this is how trust works.

Trust and the ‘Net

Why all this discussion about drivers and cars and trust? Because today, we put an incredible amount of trust in technology. In 2012, security expert Bruce Schneier had this to say about it:

These notions of trust and trustworthiness are as old as our species. Many of the specific societal pressures that induce trust are as old as civilisation. ...

What has changed in modern society is scale. Today we need to trust more people than ever before, further away—whether politically, ethnically or socially—than ever before. We need to trust larger corporations, more diverse institutions and more complicated systems. We need to trust via computer networks. This all makes trust, and inducing trust, harder. At the same time, the scaling of technology means that the bad guys can do more damage than ever before. That also makes trust harder. Navigating all of this is one of the most fundamental challenges of our society in this new century.

—Bruce Shneier, February 2012

Nowhere is Shneier’s insight more clear than with the technology of the Internet.

We put our trust in the web from the moment we go online, extending trust to our WiFi networks, broadband internet service providers, and cellular providers. We trust everything from our apps and browsers to our phones and tablets, our laptops—and for a growing number of us, even our light bulbs and appliances.

Just how much do we trust our technology? Let’s look at a couple specific examples.

When you enter a search query into Google, you trust the search giant isn’t going to use your Gmail account to email your query out to your contacts. But do you trust Google to do nothing with the data? Probably not. After all, Google is a business, and whether “you are the product” or not, your intentions online are valuable. Knowing this, do you stop using Google? Some have.

Outside of search, if you buy products online—the kind that must be shipped to you—you trust the seller with information you want kept private. Oh the Amazon purchases we’ve all made! Do you worry online retailers might get hacked? Given all the times this has happened over the last decade, you probably do. Have you stopped shopping online? Probably not.

These examples show how we place our trust in online institutions all the time. And when we think about it, sometimes we wonder if we trust them too much.

Because unlike drivers on the road and the cars we ride in and experience directly, today's digital technology works sight unseen, doing things most of us lack the time or expertise to fully understand. And while we may trust some of the largest brands online, what about all the sites, apps, and technology we don’t know about? How do we build trust in our digital age?

Can We Learn to Stop Worrying and Trust Dotcom?

Lately, our trust in technology has been tested. Whether it’s the latest social media mishap, the headline news customer data breach at Big Brand Company, or something more personal like having your identity stolen, all of us have good reasons to think carefully about who or what we trust on the Internet.

But should we stop using technology? No. Because while the Internet is still in its relative infancy, our personal experiences with it have been overwhelmingly positive, and it's those experiences we draw on to set expectations about the future—and to build trust.

What’s more, just like that experience on the roads of New Delhi, we aren’t alone in navigating the sometimes scary experience of going online. When we look around, we get the strong sense things are okay. This is fine. But that doesn’t mean questions of trust on the ‘Net are settled. As technology grows in its complexity and more and more happens behind the scenes and screens of our day-to-day lives, we have to look even closer—and we have to set expectations. We must ensure they are met.

The chain of trust goes on.

If you care about trust on the Internet—and privacy and security—this is just the beginning.