Whitelisted vs. blacklisted society - Which is better?

Updated: December 30, 2009

I am not talking about skin color, so calm down. I'm talking about the concept of trust, widely used in the software security industry, and projecting it onto human society. For example, is there a reason why different societies have different levels of crime or different levels of wealth? Is there a reason why Internet has become such a great thing, widely used and accepted by the entire world? How does whitelisting or blacklisting impact political and financial stabilities of nations?



Let's try to understand what each concept means:


Blacklisting means you keep a list of items you do not like. One can argue that this is a racist term, so badlisting can be used instead. Anyhow, in the world of software, blacklisting is the de-facto current modus operandi, with security companies providing solutions based on long lists of bad items, whereas implicit trust is given all other items that cannot be found on the list.

For this reason, blacklisting is also known as default-allow methodology, as everything is trusted unless it is explicitly found to be harmful, detrimental or such.


Whitelisting is the exact opposite of blacklisting. While blacklisting assumes an infinite space of goodness with a small pocket, albeit unlimited in its size and growth, of bad stuff, whitelisting turns the picture upside down. Everything is bad, except a small, select, finite group, albeit unlimited in its size and growth.

Whitelisting is also known as default-deny.

Now, how do these approaches reflect within our society?

Believe it or not, the human society uses the blacklisting approach. Guilty until proven innocent is exactly that. People are deemed guiltless, i.e. good until they are found to have transgressed on a written set of rules created by the society they live in. In other words, people are only blacklisted when they break the law of the society.

There are many reason for this, but the first and foremost is the fact that the human being is not a solitary creature. We live in societies, we depend on one another. We are communal animals and our survival and evolution depend on numbers. As a race, humans would probably not have survived historically, if they had not adopted the blacklisting approach.

Blacklisting in modern society

A typical example of blacklisting in today's world is the democracy. Everyone's given a basic set of rights, like free speech or the right to vote.

Still, things are not quite as black and white [sic] as they appear.

Even though some of the basic, so-called human rights grants us implicit freedoms of different kind, different countries and cultures place different emphases of facets of these freedoms and their application. For example, free education or free healthcare. They are not a standard in all democracies. Some adhere to greater, more liberal social rights for everyone, others are more inclined toward privileges, i.e. gaining rights to rights, either by merit of deeds or finance, although underneath, they are sticking to the principle of blacklisting.

A good example is the comparison between some of the Western Europe democracies and United States of America. While you get free healthcare and higher education in most Western European countries, you have to pay for these in United States. This does not mean that one or the other is better, just that the scope of blacklisting can vary, significantly, between nations, countries or even religions.


However, despite the general blacklisting approach, even the most liberal societies bind the seemingly infinite cycle of trust with whitelisting rules, especially when it comes to activities that can be dangerous to society. For example, you cannot drive a car without proving yourself worthy of the task. You cannot be a doctor without passing a long, exhausting series of exams. Activities that can have a negative impact on the prosperity of human society are whitelisted, even though the society is trusting.

This is why, for example, parental control has not taken effect anywhere, because it is contrary to society's growth, hence it's an unfavorable whitelisting activity.

What we have here is a combination of both. The basis is default-allow, bounded by default-deny set of rules, which form what is known as The Law. Do notice that the balance can change. For example, during natural disasters, human society tends to go into disarray. It is during such times that martial law is declared, which imposes the well known "shoot first, ask later" policy. Human societies tend to slide toward whitelisting in the times of trouble. This is expected, because when there's chaos, there's no one you can trust.

Whitelisting as a model

We have seen whitelisting as an addendum to blacklisting. But are there any pure, whitelisted societies?

A by-the-book example would probably be the Orwellian society as depicted in 1984. You get all sorts of coin terms like big Brother, surveillance, Party, State, etc. The big question is, is there a real example, in our world?

The simplest thing would be to point a finger at the former Soviet Union and declare it a whitelisted society. Well, in some of its less bright times, like the heyday of Stalinist paranoia, the society came close to being as whitelisted as possible. But it was never explicit. People were mistrusted and under constant surveillance by a massive force of state-governed secret police, but they were blacklisted only when the regime considered them as a menace to the society, whether for political or other reasons. The big problem with this situation was that the blacklisting was imposed based on whim rather than a set of written rules, which brought in a sort of a chaos of its own, since the two groups were not well defined.


Note: Image above is a screenshot of the intro movie in Red Alert 2 real-time strategy game.

The Soviet Union was probably a graylisted society rather than a whitelisted one. In fact, most totalitarian regimes tend toward whitelisting. But pure whitelisting does not seem possible, because humans are trusting creatures by nature and cannot survive long in total exclusion.

Which is preferable?

Now, the natural conclusion by most people would be - blacklisted societies are preferable. Before I give you the right answer, let's talk about stability and progress in each of the models.

In the blacklisted societies, the "good" side is quite big. This means that any radical fluctuations in the pool of good does not adversely affect the overall average. In other words, changes in the blacklisted societies are spread over a very large group. This means that fast progress or fast decline are less likely to happen in blacklisted societies. This means we have stability.

Democracy and bureaucracy go hand in hand together. Both are mechanisms that favor the status quo and do not easily yield to changes, including the good ones that actually help the society. This is why politicians can recite the same mantras over and over again, this is why the same long-term national projects are brought to the table over and over again. Changes are very slow and take generations to implement.

Democracy is all about normal distribution, the one standard deviation thereof. Democracy favors stability. Any extremely bright or completely lunatic ideas born in a blacklisted society will be absorbed in the big sea of mediocrity, without affecting the texture of the society.

In a whitelisted society, the "good" side is very small. Any change is instantly felt, for good or worse. This is why benevolent dictators can make wonders in their countries over a very short period. Similarly, dictatorships can crumble overnight. Any change instantly affects the group, causing dramatic shifts in the average. Whitelisted societies are all about the outliers of distribution and care nothing for the average. If you have a wise cadre of leaders, the society prospers at the speed of light. If you have raving, paranoid lunatics for your leaders, you get decaying police states.

So the question, which one is better? In the short run, whitelisted societies are better. But in the long run, blacklisting wins.


This explains why we have Internet today. The Internet was built on the premise of trust. In the early days of networking, everyone was granted full permissions. Only when the concept of online profit started taking shape did the creators of Internet and WWW realize that the implicit trust model does not work quite as well as expected and started devising blacklisting solutions to combat the phenomenon. The everlasting aftershock of this conceptual decision is still evident, with security companies and "baddies" racing to outdo one another.

This also explains why people have trouble accepting the default-deny software model, as it is contrary to their intuition as humans, although when used correctly, it's much more efficient than any signature-based doctrine.

Society test

Based on what you've learned here today, you can easily judge your own society and determine it's level of blacklisted-ness or whitelisted-ness. For example, ask yourselves the following questions: Is the healthcare free? Is the education free? Can everyone vote? Is there any censorship on the TV or the Internet?

Of course, your notion of human rights will be different from someone living on the other side of planet. Your expectations of what your country should give you in return for your taxes and obedience with the law are not those of your fellow human 10,000 km away. Despite globalization, we are still bound by the laws and habits of our near societies, religion, culture, and whatnot.

This tells us why bringing democracy to a foreign country does not always work, in principle. You cannot impose your database of blacklist signatures onto another society, because some of the signatures may be in direct contradiction to their beliefs and customs.

Well, I'm spent.


The conclusion of this brilliant article is that human society is blacklisted and will follow this model until Sun explodes and obliterates the planet. For people who strive for perfection and total order, this sad truth is maddening and infuriating. Blacklisted societies will never be efficient, but they can grow ceaselessly. On the other hand, whitelisted societies tend to implode. Utopia cannot be, because it would last exactly one generation.

However, a smart combination of blacklisting and whitelisting can make a society flourish and its people happy. It's the right balance between what you give versus what you ask in return. It's just like cooking, the right mix of ingredients. And so the race toward the ultimate society continues.