Asymmetric Information in Cyber Communities

What do Points mean?

All of our engineering team take part in our sales activity, and I’m unashamedly enthusiastic about this. It gives us real visibility of the market. It establishes a connection with our customers that’s hard to beat. Most critically, it forces engineers like me to keep thinking about the technology we build in terms of what fundamentally matters.

While I was demonstrating Threatvine to the Dutch Cyber industry in The Hague a few weeks back, one delegate stumped me. I was giving her the whistle-stop tour of the “social network” aspects of Threatvine. Participants gain endorsements from others. They earn rankings. And they are awarded points for engagement. She stopped me mid-flow, and asked “What do people get from the points?”. My mouth flapped, soundlessly, for a few moments. I made some unimpressive statements about gamification of engagement. In my defence, it was late in the second day, and it’s a difficult concept to explain properly.

On a trivial level, members actually get nothing from their points – and certainly not in the way she was asking. They don’t get money off. They don’t get vouchers. Points – at least in this case – do not mean prizes. Even in more abstract terms, people don’t get any practical benefit from their points. The points are, odd as it may seem, purely for the benefit of everyone else.

Cyber-Lemons and Cyber-Peaches

To understand why, we need to look at an economics paper from 1970, by George Akerlof, called “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”. It uses the used-car market to explain the market degradation from information asymmetry.

The problem is that you can’t easily distinguish between a good car (a “peach”) and a rubbish car (a “lemon”) until you’ve already bought it. This means you’ll pay lower than the real value of “peaches”, to account for this risk. But sellers do know if their cars are any good. Yet they won’t make money on peaches, and so end up selling only lemons. As the numbers of peaches in the market drop, the pricing differential for peaches also drops. The market collapses. The paper essentially explains why used-car salesmen end up with a bad reputation (and so did “horse traders” before them). Akerlof jointly won the Nobel Prize for Economics for this paper in 2001, and rightly so.

Not all markets are so simple in terms of what is bought, sold, and how it is paid for. The job market is similar. On the face of it, a prospective employer does not know whether a candidate is suitable or not. They must therefore address this “information asymmetry” by looking at secondary indicators such as qualifications, previous roles, and so on. When these are disrupted (for example in the US where credit scoring job applicants was outlawed) the results can be complex and unpredictable.

Cyber-Economics in Action

Threatvine is essentially a market for Cyber information, with buyers replaced by readers, and sellers replaced by those posting. If a “buyer” asks a question, they’ll see answers and comments pop up. But it’s very difficult for them to know if these posts are any use. Those posting know, of course, but they’ll be less encouraged to post quality information if it might simply be ignored. In general, the “market” of a Threatvine instance would degrade – nobody would know how to judge the information posted, or even if there were any, and the platform would end up under-used.

So Threatvine provides a slew of secondary indicators, such as endorsements, qualification listings, job information, and – of course – points. The points just quantify the engagement level of the individual – we tweak them through the instance’s lifetime in order to promote the behaviours we need to develop the community – but they’re an essential part of correcting information asymmetry. Waving the mouse over the author of a post gives you a précis of their engagement to date. Clicking takes you to their detailed profile, including all the endorsements from peers.

With much of the guesswork now removed, it’s now relatively simple for a new participant to decide which of the answers to their question are most likely to be correct, and which posts are most likely to contain useful information. Both Lemons and Peaches are easily distinguished, and the market stabilises into a useful equilibrium.

Better Cyber through Community

Economics might seem an unlikely place to find solutions to key problems in Cyber defence, but here it allows us to understand how to build effective communities. Threatvine continues to provide those communities using it with a powerful platform for creating and maintaining the safe spaces required to build trust between organisations in diverse sectors.