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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

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 http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2002055245_arson06m.html

[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 http://nestmannblog.sovereignsociety.com/2009/11/yes-you-are-a-criminalyou-just-dont-know-it-yet.html

[3] Chris Matyszczyk (2009) Court says police can use GPS to track anyone. Accessed at http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-10237353-71.html

[4] Christopher Soghoian (2009) 8 Million Reasons for Real Surveillance Oversight. Accessed at http://paranoia.dubfire.net/2009/12/8-million-reasons-for-real-surveillance.html

[5] Declan McCullagh (2009) FBI posts fake hyperlinks to snare child porn suspects. Accessed at: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-9899151-38.html

[6] Mark Nestmann (2009) Stupid Facebook Tricks. In "Preserving your privacy and more", November 27 2009. Accessed at http://nestmannblog.sovereignsociety.com/2009/11/stupid-facebook-tricks.html

[7] James Duane (2008) Don't Talk to Police. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8z7NC5sgik

[8] Ryan Tate (2009) Google CEO: Secrets Are for Filthy People. Accessed at http://gawker.com/5419271/google-ceo-secrets-are-for-filthy-people

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


Posted by Garmin Handheld GPS
on Monday, March 15, 2010 at 03:18 PM

GPS has been one of the wonders of the 21st century. It saves lives, makes travel of any kind safer and more efficient. It is used for so many activities and advances mankind in so many ways. However, anytime you have people involved in anything it can take a sinister turn. Law enforcement is able to be much more efficient using gps. However some (not all) people will abuse any activity or privilege. In time I hope the law will sorted out where privacy begins and ends in relation to using gps for individual actions. It is imperative if we survive as free nation. Otherwise we will degrade to a status not different from Germany or Russia in the near past.

Posted by Matron of Honor Speech
on Friday, March 19, 2010 at 09:38 PM

I have always been one to advocate keeping things private and not saying things that may incriminate you regardless of your innocence. People truly do say some silly things at stressful times. Political structures can also change overnight. As we all know ‘states of emergency’ changes the game plan. Our constitutions can be suspended and the powers that will be can consider your previosuly benign
information in any way they see fit to reduce what they deem as risks. Yes, we are moving to a world of openness, where people share anyhthing and everything about themeselves. This is not always a good thing. The younger, more tech savvy generations (of which I consider myself a part of) will often say “Not in our times”. When I said this to my grandmother a few years back before her death, she remarked “that’s what your grandfather and I though too”. FYI she escaped Nazi Germany and had previously considered her fellow Germans amongst the most cultured and civilized people on the planet. We all know how that turned out.

Posted by Eddie Goldberg
on Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 03:46 AM

I just finished reading “1984”, by George Orwell and then stumbled upon your post. Although there is no direct relation, but is it that we are slowly moving towards a society where everything you do and everything you say is being recorded by the government.

In the real world, it is the bog companies like Google who have more information about us than the government. Sure they want to use the information for advertising. But the government can extract all the information from them at anytime.

I think the entire system of privacy policy is based on “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear”. But as your post felicitously explains why this notion is not exactly what it looks on the outside.

Great post smile

Posted by Web Space
on Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 01:34 PM

Same thing is happening with the internet. Too much information left online without thinking about any repercussions. All the police need is to search properly, and what we might have entered sometime could bite back to us.

Posted by marcel
on Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 04:15 PM

“Thank goodness for our Miranda rights! “


Posted by Fast Track
on Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 07:56 AM

I used to believe that only those who are guilt will tell lie. Now I understand that everyone will lie to defend themselves. Thanks for the post.

Posted by Mike Tidball
on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 12:23 PM

Thankfully we live in a semi civilized state. Imagine living in an oppressed country were you are innocent until the police can beat you until you believe your guilty

Posted by Gerber Knives
on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 03:17 PM

My whole motto when it comes to dealing with the police is zip the lip I just don’t talk to them at all

Posted by Google Search Operators
on Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 04:40 PM

Wow! Schmidt put the “smack-down” with that statement! Haha he’s right though, if you don’t want to be under scrutiny, then stay away from “less-than-reputable” practices.

Posted by Amelia Island
on Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 06:00 PM

It does me good to see this post.  It is a good sign that at least some people are awake. We have the freedom of speech but also the freedom to be silent. It is just as much our right to be silent and we also have the right to our privacy. You don’t need to justify your right.  It is my belief that perhaps a lot of people don’t really understand what a right is . Look at it like this a right is like personal property it belongs to you. It wasn’t loaned to you it is yours period, and what you choose to do with that is up to you.  Our rights were not given to us by the Government by the way.  What they give they can take away. That is why it is so important to understand who gave us those rights. Stand up and hold on to the truth.

Posted by Cellulite Gel
on Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 01:25 PM

Unfortunately, Talking to policeman is a lot like playing poker. You never know when they are trying to deceive you or manipulate you. It just makes us not want to trust them that much more.

Posted by Villa
on Saturday, April 24, 2010 at 09:15 AM

well said…love it specially number 5…

Posted by San Diego photographer
on Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 01:21 AM

Someone mentioned thank goodness we live in a civilized society.  ha ha!

We may be civilized but are the people in charge?

Posted by Ask a Question
on Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 04:19 AM

This is really interesting article. Polices are getting more and more tactical with their questioning, and its very manipulative.

Posted by Human Rights Books
on Monday, May 3, 2010 at 05:43 AM

I agree with the above poster. One’s silence is not something that should be held against you - despite the more open / ‘flaunt it’ modern society that we find ourselves in in the internet age. Everyone has the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and in criminal law the burden of proof does not rest with the accused or questioned, but with the accuser or questioner. These basic human and legal rights are what distinguishes us from less civilised societies. We or anyone can not be held indefinitely by police and must be delivered up to a judicial officer at the earliest possible time to prevent police trickery to get information out of people voluntarily.
I feel that as time progresses justice authorities holding someone will be able to do so for longer and longer periods (already happening with the war on terror) and with methods not yet outlawed or bordering on the illegal but not quite, due to an exercise of a legal loophole (see extraordinary rendition).
We must be vigilant and fight any proposed changes that may crop up in the future. For whether we practice use of that right or not, or our youngsters are ignorant/naive to it or not, we must ensure that these rights to silence and presumption of innocence are always there regardless.

Michael Simon
The Human Rights Book Review

Posted by New Jersey Homes for Sale
on Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 08:41 PM

Clearly we are walking a fine line. With the recent apprehension of a terrorist suspect in who was caught fleeing the US after trying to blow up a ban in Times Square; a compelling argument can easily be made that increased video surveillance is good.  Yet on the other hand I do enjoy an individuals right to privacy or at least not feeling watched all of the time.  I do agree that if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t have any problem answering questions.  It’s just a reflection of the world and society that we live in today.

Posted by gazete oku
on Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 01:14 AM

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.

Posted by start a web design business
on Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 08:05 AM

I’ve found over time, that the police aren’t always honest. Whilst most do the right thing, its the others within the service that bring upon that mistrust which is unfortunate.

Posted by mjp
on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 11:23 AM

Policing is becoming big business. With so much being outsourced to the corporate sector there are huge dollars to be made (and are being made)... unfortunately that can quite easily taint the motivation of those who are there to protect and serve. And with all the advances in the digital age we are being watched and monitored like never before… and computers are never wrong… right???? Just watch I Robot… lol

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