Digital fingerprints: The truth is out there

by Dave Michels

People lie all the time. At least I think so. It’s hard to know for sure. It can be really hard to tell if someone is lying, as few of us have Larry David’s ability to see truth by looking deeply into someone’s eyes. If only there were a machine or something that could tell us if someone is lying.

Whoever dubbed the polygraph a lie detector was a liar. A polygraph when paired with questioning techniques is supposed to ascertain truths and falsehoods. Unfortunately, polygraphs lie. On the unsuspecting they can be slightly more effective than guessing, but they can be easily fooled so can’t be trusted.

+ Also on Network World: Cops use pacemaker data to charge homeowner with arson, insurance fraud +

Instead of relying on one device to measure a statement, the truth is increasingly found by using lots of devices that can corroborate or contradict one’s story. In other words, there’s no need to catch someone with their hand in the cookie jar if the cookie jar has biometric sensors.

Digital fingerprints are everywhere

As everything we do and touch is becoming digitally aware, we leave our digital fingerprints behind. Forget about what you say—anything you do can and will be used against you in a court of law. Well, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but there are many more entities watching us today than many realize.

We got a preview of this back in 2013 when The New York Times published a scathing review of the new Tesla Model S. Among other things, it stated the vehicle could not successfully meet Tesla’s claims regarding range, even with the cruise control set to a low speed and the heat turned off.

Tesla Founder Elon Musk accused the newspaper of distorting the facts. It looked like another game of he said/she said, but then Musk revealed that the Model S has detailed logs. What? Tesla developed the logging system to measure and improve vehicle performance, and the company had begun logging activities on its loaner vehicles. The logs revealed that the NYT did not fully charge the vehicle, drove well above the speed limit, and turned the heat to 74F. The Model S is an excellent lie detector.

Privacy issues were skirted, as the car in question was actually owned by Tesla, but it is a thorny topic. There have been a few recent examples where companies have vehemently protected customer privacy. Last summer, Apple famously denied a court order to unlock a phone. More recently, Amazon refused to verify what and when someone said to their Echo. But those cases represent the extreme; there’s never been more logging and brokering of personal behaviors.

You regularly give away digital information

The story here is that the digital information we unwittingly give away is increasingly being used against us, so be careful about those little, white lies. For example, keeping Bluetooth or Wi-Fi active on a smartphone doesn’t feel like a big risk because they don’t connect without permission—kind of. Both of those radios transmit basic unique information—more digital fingerprints.

Retailers can, for example, use these signals to measure traffic patterns within their stores. At this point, the signals are tracked to a specific anonymous device, not a specific person. But that can change quickly. A subpoena can determine if your phone was in the store last Tuesday. It’s also possible that the retailer has figured out how to map the device to you—common approaches include “free” Wi-Fi service or related apps.

What’s that? Somebody stole your phone and it wasn’t you? Really, because modern gait detection shows it was in your pocket. Or that your voice spoke to Siri, Alexa or Google. Make a call, and some phones have ear detection that can recognize canals.

Smartphones also know where you are. In addition to the GPS receiver, it triangulates off cell towers. Wi-Fi, too, can be used to determine location, as information is increasingly shared across apps. This location meta data gets added to camera snaps, Facebook posts, tweets and searches on Yelp. Not only can the meta data confirm where you’ve been, but when compared with similar data from other sources, it can confirm who you were with.

It is going to be very hard to lie about what city you were in. Cash can’t cover your tracks, as you can’t check into a hotel without a credit card and ID. You can’t get on a plane anonymously either—the truth is out there.

More digital fingerprints: Apps and devices that tattle

Most of us willingly give our personal data away in exchange for services. That’s why Facebook, Google and many others are “free.” However, are you willing to give it to your employer?

Many enterprises now use mobile device management (MDM) software. The pitch goes something like this: You can use your own smartphone, but it must have this management software on it in order to protect corporate data. Among other things, MDM software can remotely erase data if the phone if lost or stolen.

How much information do these MDM applications really see? In most cases, MDM software is not limited to just the business data. They can access your GPS, photos and just about anything else on your phone. Think about that next time you call in sick.

Another tattler to be aware of is your fitness tracker. These little wearables track all kinds of information and leave plenty of digital fingerprints. Data privacy is one issue, but the bigger concern is the data record itself. If you were really running OJ style through the airport, you should have a heart rate chart to prove it. Earlier this year a man was arrested for arson and insurance fraud. His pacemaker turned him in after the police realized he was in no condition to have escaped the fire as he claimed.

Your vehicle could you rat you out in a number of ways. Most new cars transmit all kinds of data about usage and location, such as hard braking, rapid acceleration, and lane wandering. Ironically, my car knows if I slam on the brakes to avoid hitting someone crossing the street, but I don’t think it would know if I ran them over without stopping. Next year’s model will.

Have you installed an e-pass on your car for some nearby toll road? Although these seem to work only on the toll roads, they don’t actually turn off. These e-passes are incenting cities to deploy sensors all over to track driving patterns.

Our increasingly connected world and growing digital fingerprints are going to make it very hard to lie. It is easy to imagine a self-enforcing future where your car will inform the police if you drove too fast, or your grocer informs your insurance company if you buy foods against a doctor’s advice. Even if you get it past the credit card or grocer loyalty card, your toilet may tattle.

There are potential benefits too to all of these records. It could, after all prove innocence. “I was clearly in the kitchen when Colonel Mustard was killed in the study.” Perhaps it makes more sense to base car insurance rates on actual driving patterns rather than tickets and accidents.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.