The Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)

The Center for Education and Research in
Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)

Talking to the Police All the Time

I started writing this entry while thinking about the "if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear" fallacy. What do you say to someone who says that they have nothing to hide, or that some information about them is worthless anyway, so they don't care about some violation of their privacy? What do you say to a police officer who says that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear by answering questions? It implies that if you refuse to answer then you're probably "not innocent". That "pleading the 5th" is now used as a joke to admit guilt in light banter, is a sign of how pervasive the fallacy has become. It's followed closely with "where there's smoke there's probably fire" when discussing someone's arrest, trial, or refusal to answer questions. However, in the field of information security, it is an everyday occurrence to encounter people who don't realize the risks to which they are exposed. So why is this fallacy so irritating?

Those kind of statements expose naïveté or, if intended as a manipulative statement, perversity. It takes a long time to explain the risks and convince others that they are real, and that they are really exposed to them, and what the consequences might be. Even if you could somehow manage to explain it convincingly on the spot, before you're done, chances are that you'll be dismissed as a "privacy nut". In addition, you rarely have that kind of time to make a point in a normal discussion. So, that fallacy is often a successful gambit simply because it discourages someone from trying to explain why it's so silly.

You may buy some time by mentioning anecdotes such as the man falsely accused of arson because by coincidence, he bought certain things in a store at a certain time (betrayed by his grocery loyalty card) [1]. Or, there's the Indiana woman who bought for her sick family just a little too much medication containing pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used in the manufacture of crystal meth [2]. Possibilities for the misinterpretation of data or the inappropriate enforcement of bad laws are multiplied by the ways in which it can be obtained. Police can stick a GPS-tracking device on anyone they want without getting a search warrant [3] or routinely use your own phone's GPS [4]. Visiting a web page, regardless of whether you used an automated spider, clicked on a linked manually, perhaps even being tricked into doing it, or were framed by a malicious or compromised web site, can trigger an FBI raid [5] (remember goatse? Except it's worse, with a criminal record for you). There are also the dumb things people post themselves, for example on Facebook, causing them to lose jobs, opportunities for jobs, or even get arrested [6].

Regardless, people always think that happens only to others, that "they were dumb and I'm not" or that they are isolated incidents. This is why I was delighted to find this video of a law professor explaining why talking to police can be a bad idea [7]. Even though I knew that "everything you say can be used against you", I was surprised to learn that nothing you say can be used in your defense. This asymmetry is a rather convincing argument for exercising 5th amendment rights. Then there are the chances that even though you are innocent, due to the stress or excitement you will exaggerate or say something stupid. For example, you might say you've never touched a gun in your life -- except you did once a long time ago when you were a teen maybe, and forgot about it but there's a photo proving that you lied (apparently, that you didn't mean to lie matters little). People say stupid things in less stressful circumstances. Why take the chance? There are also coincidences that look rather damning and bad for you. Police sometimes make mistakes as well. The presentation is well-made and is very convincing; I recommend viewing it.

There are so many ways in which private information can be misinterpreted and used against you or to your disadvantage, and not just by police. Note that I agree that we need an effective police; however, there's a line between that and a surveillance society making you afraid to speak your mind in private, afraid to buy certain things at the grocery store, afraid to go somewhere or visit a web site, or afraid of chatting online with your friends, because you never know who will use anything you say or do against you and put it in the wrong context. In effect, you may be speaking to the police all the time but don't realize it. Even though considering each method separately, it can be argued that technically there isn't a violation of the 5th amendment, the cumulative effect may violate its intent.

Then, after I wrote most of this entry, Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared that "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place" [8]. I'm afraid that's a realistic assessment, even if it's a lawful activity, given the "spying guides" published by the likes of Yahoo!, Verizon, Sprint, Cox, SBC, Cingular, Nextel, GTE, Voicestream for law enforcement, and available at Cryptome [9]. The problem is that you'll then live a sad life devoid of personal liberties. The alternative shrug and ignorance of the risks is bliss, until it happens to you.

[1] Brandon Sprague (2004) Fireman attempted to set fire to house, charges say. Times Snohomish County Bureau, Seattle Times. Accessed at

[2] Mark Nestmann (2009) Yes, You ARE a Criminal…You Just Don't Know it Yet. In "Preserving your privacy and more", November 23 2009. Accessed at

[3] Chris Matyszczyk (2009) Court says police can use GPS to track anyone. Accessed at

[4] Christopher Soghoian (2009) 8 Million Reasons for Real Surveillance Oversight. Accessed at

[5] Declan McCullagh (2009) FBI posts fake hyperlinks to snare child porn suspects. Accessed at:

[6] Mark Nestmann (2009) Stupid Facebook Tricks. In "Preserving your privacy and more", November 27 2009. Accessed at

[7] James Duane (2008) Don't Talk to Police.

[8] Ryan Tate (2009) Google CEO: Secrets Are for Filthy People. Accessed at

[9] Cryptome. Accessed at
Last edited Jan 25, as per emumbert1's suggestion (see comments).


Posted by Rob
on Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 09:53 PM

Norwegians think fundamentally different; they believe monitoring from the government at any time is ok.  As information transcends nations and moves from the clients to servers that are in “clouds”, we may begin to see that international cooperation and subsequent definitions to follow most likely will become increasingly important in the field.

Posted by Jocelyn
on Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 12:47 AM

It is not that a person has nothing to hide, and therefore he has nothing to fear.  What creates fear is the malicious interpretation of the truth, so that others can twist it to their liking. If we don’t really trust someone, better to keep silent than hand out important information they can use against you.

Posted by Clive Robinson
on Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 08:54 AM

There is another aspect that you have not overtly mentioned.

End User Agreements.

For instance you look at the EUA for a search engine and it says that part of it’s Term’s and Condition’s is that you accept in page adverts, and further down this is tailored to you by your search history.

What it fails to mention is just how long it intends to keep your search history.

Nor does it mention that if it finds at some later period of time it is not making sufficient revenue at the output end of the “marketing value added chain” pushing adverts. It will sell your historical search information into the top end of the “marketing value added chain” as prospects or leads…

So what you thought was an equitable exchange (ie get but ignore the adverts) under one EUA and effectivly safe, becomes something altogether more threatening when the EUA gets changed.

But importantly the change is retrospective that is you have no right to say “no” over the data you relenquished under the old EUA…

Ask yourself the question,

Would you wilingly accept the same EUA change from a Charge Card Company without complaint?

If yes think a little and ask again would you?

If yes again when are you going to put up all your lifes financial details on the web?

Another aspect that usually get’s over looked is “nobdy is going to bother with me as I’m uniportant”.

Sadly if you are important or not is decided more often by circumstances and the actions of others than by personal choice.

Think of all the victims of unfortunate events that have additionaly to contend with being thrust into the public spot light for others to make money off of them.

Likewise those (such as the Wii-fit Girl) who’s private moments get posted to the web and go viral for others titilation.

If you tried to claim that your personal rights had been stolen you would get little recompense. But if you tried to download somebody elses “work” without recompense you would likley face problems from those with vested financial interests.

Justice and thus the law is supposed to be “blind” and thus equitable for all not just those with money to buy laws for their vested interests.

Posted by Jim Craig
on Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 11:59 AM

This quote hits home for me:  “Even though I knew that “everything you say can be used against you”, I was surprised to learn that nothing you say can be used in your defense. This asymmetry is a rather convincing argument for exercising 5th amendment rights.”  I have experienced a very similar phenomena when interviewing for jobs.  They always ask your expected salary range, and as far as I can tell, there is no benefit to answering this question—it only works against you.  Either A) you commit yourself to a much lower salary than you could have received through negotiations, or B) you eliminate yourself from consideration by being too pricey.  I take the fifth. smile

Posted by Tom
on Monday, December 28, 2009 at 09:55 AM

you have the right to remain silent… also there is a reason they say anything you say CAN AND WILL BE USED A G A I N S T   YOU ... not for you or to help you…

also any right you have but fail to exercise will sooner or later no longer be a right.

Posted by Alice Matthews
on Monday, January 4, 2010 at 03:47 AM

This is just what I have been looking for: Mark Nestmann (2009) Stupid Facebook Tricks. Its got some good examples stupid things people have done on Facebook, it also raises the point be careful who you add as ‘friends’, prospective employers could set up a fake profile and ‘friend’ you, should your real friend post some embarrassing photos of your last night out (which is beyond your control!) you might not be getting that job!

Posted by Mukul Verma - Internet Marketing
on Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 09:13 AM

Sometimes when you have nothing to hide, the picture can be painted ugly. 

About 2 years ago I was rejected getting from Canada to the USA. I had my passport and normal papers.  My mom and dad both live in the US and I had a bank account from visiting my dad and my mom got me a social security for some reason when I was 14 years old.  Mixed with the fact that we were driving and that I am Internet Marketer, so this is not considers a real profession by some.

All harmless facts added up to paint a picture that I was living in the US illegeally.  Next day, I had to get 5 years of Canadian bank records, letter of employment from the bank I worked with and about 2 boxes of paper work for them to let me in.  Not to mention this was 5 hours from home and snow storm, making it 7 to 8 hours.

Since then I have been in and out 5-6 times, almost always stopping for 1-2 hours at custom since I am marked and then going through. 

So the facts may seem harmless and I have nothing to hide, but still got rejected.

Anyone who understands

Posted by emumbert1
on Monday, January 25, 2010 at 05:41 PM

My first response was a little irritation at the arrogant tone of the first part of the article. I think people are naive, not stupid. Your grossly ignorant phrase was unnecessary and inflammatory.  Your points are well taken, though. I am fairly well informed on Miranda and suspect questioning, and I was even shocked to learn that what you say cannot be used in your defense. If you could tone it down, this message needs to reach many happy Social Media users who have no idea what they are getting into.  Most of them are recreational Internet users.

My two bits worth and thanks for the thought provoking post.

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Monday, January 25, 2010 at 06:47 PM

Upon re-reading it, I could see your point so I took your suggestion and edited the post.  Thanks for your comment!

Posted by Tom Aikins
on Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 01:39 AM

I’m glad I live in a country that doesn’t have the resources or inclination to spy on people. Living in the U.S. must be a drag now.

Posted by Brendan
on Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:05 PM

This is fascinating. I am often amazed by criminals on the lam who are still able to update their facebook status even when the FBI and local police forces can’t find them. Hacking of sites like facebook for identity theft will be more common in 2010 I fear.

Posted by FrankM1150
on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 01:36 PM

The older I get the wiser I become.  I used to believe that only the guilty our prosecuted and no public official would lie.  I used tho think it could never happen to me.  Today all the rules have changed.  “Buyer beware” takes on a whole new meaning.  Thanks for the post.

Posted by Aidan - Affiliate Millionaire
on Friday, February 5, 2010 at 01:15 AM

I am truly amazed at just how much private information web 2.0 properties like Facebook are able to compile. And as you suggest, the ability of law enforcement to firstly compile this seemingly innocuous data and then integrate it across other sites, data sources or platforms is a train-wreck in the making.

The criminal elements lurking among us have already begun and, I believe, are well ahead of the law. To me, that means I had better be very careful about the identity footprint I spread across the ‘net.

Thanks for sharing!

Posted by Jim C
on Friday, February 5, 2010 at 02:05 PM

Unfortunately in the US when charged with any offense you are guilty until you prove your self innocent.  Think about it

Posted by Criminal Attorney Los Angeles
on Friday, February 12, 2010 at 11:18 AM

Their driving is to different standards, a traffic officer is trained to drive at speed while those who drive panda cars just have the normal driving licence and no doubt ability. What really annoys me is that they, along with the public seem to think that parking on the pavement is OK. The fact is that driving standards of the police are as variable as they are for the public just that some have been trained to a higher level….<a href=“”>Criminal Attorney Los Angeles</a>...!!!

Posted by James
on Friday, February 12, 2010 at 11:23 AM

Thanks for reminding me to turn off my cell phone at random times, so if the need ever arises to turn it off, the pattern won’t look strange.

Posted by Jeff
on Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 02:26 PM

It is not only in the US that you are guilty until proven innocent! This seems to be a more common theme globally and it is our technology that has led us down this path. Remember, big brother is watching you, from everywhere!  Just look at the kids that where being spied on by their high school principle through their web-cams on their home computers.  Nothing is sacred anymore…....

Posted by Justin Cason
on Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 10:58 PM

This is really interesting.  It seems to me that police officers have such experience at towing the line of constitutional/not-constitutional that a normal person can be manipulated by them very easily.  I mean the average person doesn’t know that you should NEVER talk to a police officer, but EVERY police officer knows that…but would never tell you so.

Posted by David Yurman
on Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 04:23 AM

This was a really interesting post, and from what I have encountered and what this post talks about, its far easier than ever to see everything for what it is. Police are getting more and more tactical with their questioning, and its very manipulative. Cant say that I agree with their tactics.

Posted by chidrens furniture
on Friday, March 5, 2010 at 02:13 PM

We’ve taken a simple thing and turned it into a nightmare,  in today’s world we are no longer innocent until proven guilty we have to prove our innocents. Everything we say is used against us even if we meant something completely different they will twist it and use it against us. Law enforcement has become big business and that’s how they treat it like a business.

Posted by Bang
on Monday, March 8, 2010 at 06:12 PM

The older I get the wiser I become.  I used to believe that only the guilty our prosecuted and no public official would lie.  I used tho think it could never happen to me.  Today all the rules have changed.  “Buyer beware” takes on a whole new meaning.  Thanks for the post.

Posted by Sustainable Design
on Tuesday, March 9, 2010 at 06:20 AM

I totally agree with the 6th one.. One of my best buddies in got busted from his job just because of facebook !! This post reminds me of WIKIPEDIA Style. Good Job. !

Posted by CT Web Design
on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 03:05 PM

Really well done post. It’s ironic how technology has given us all these new “freedoms” and distractions when in essence it’s allowing corporations/government/ect. to track us more effectively and in a way box us in.

Posted by atlanticOptimize
on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 05:01 PM

Thank goodness for our Miranda rights!

Posted by Accountants Solihull
on Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 05:42 PM

I have dealt with two personal injury legal cases recently citing evidence obtained from Facebook and Twitter. One might suggest, in this digital, that one should exercise a certain level of discretion.

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