Social Engineering the Justice System

A couple friends and I have made an interesting discovery which – quite aside from its own novelty – highlights an interesting side of the “human aspects” of security which doesn’t get mentioned very often. That is, fundamentally, that most people are conditioned to automatically accept untruths – or potential untruths – which are, essentially, somehow detrimental to the speaker.

Think of it as the “why would you lie about that?” test: You’re “caught” with a fellow college student (of the same gender) in a park after it closes, by police, who ask you what you’re doing. What do you say? “Nothing”? “Watching the stars”? “Smoking a blunt”? “Looking for a little, you know, privacy by ourselves”? Here’s a hint: All four of these answers are lies, but two of these answers are likely to be viewed as lies or evasions, and two are likely to be viewed as (at least partial) truth, because they’re somewhat embarrassing or incriminating. One of them, though, doesn’t admit to anything actually illegal. See the point, here?

I know it seems pretty simple, but there’s a whole other side to this that’s much more interesting. In our experience, nowhere throughout the court process (at the local level, at least) is one actually required, or even asked, to prove one’s identity. Show up for court, and you’re asked who you are. Asked.. Plead guilty to your felony, misdemeanor, or petty misdemeanor, and you’re off to the Sheriff’s deputies to book you – and once again, they ask you who you are. (You’ll need to provide “your” date of birth and Social Security number, which are easy enough to memorize; when being booked you might also need to provide physical information like your weight. At the state and local level, they usually take you at your word – which means what you say only needs to be fairly close to what’s true. 5’6″, or 5’8″? 140lbs, or 155lbs? It’s all the same to them.) Show up for community service – no ID is required, you just tell them who you are.

This works because people aren’t able to grasp that a person might lie about being a criminal (or even anything embarrassing or “socially awkward”, such as being an accused criminal). (It’s true – just think about it: If someone tells you they’re rich, or have a really powerful position at their job, or are friends with a celebrity, you’re automatically skeptical, right? Yet, nevermind 21st-century open-mindedness, when someone tells you they’re gay, do you question it even the slightest? Do you consider whether they might be telling a lie? No – because, no matter how accepting you are, there’s this huge mental hurdle to get over, asking “why would you lie about that”?)

Why would you do such a thing? For one, to game the system, and prove it can be done… obviously. 🙂 For another, because someone was paying you. Rich CEO who got a parking ticket? Why waste your time showing up for traffic court when you can send some junior assistant to argue the injustice on your behalf? I’m sure anyone with a fairly devious mind can think of further reasons without too much difficulty.

The criminal justice system is supposed to punish “the right people” – that is, “offenders”. Yet, at least here in Minnesota, the whole “presumed innocent” thing means that the courts and law enforcement take you at your word that you are who you say you are. No real effort is made to prove that you are who you say you are; given that one of the very first things people in the criminal justice system learn is that “people lie”, this isn’t merely hard to believe – it’s schizophrenic, and downright preposterous.

(Disclaimer: It should be pointed out that being “booked” in lieu of another is almost certainly a crime – “providing false information to a law enforcement officer” – but it’s not clear that showing up for traffic court – any court, really – or community-service and pretending to be your buddy is an offense to anything but common sense. I’m merely saying you – anyone! – can do this and get away with it, because the system is flawed – I’m not suggesting you should!)

Published in: General, Security | on October 13th, 2008| No Comments »

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