The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How technology could kill the art of lying

(Albert Gea/Reuters)

Lies are a fact of life. But technology may soon make them obsolete.

"Almost everybody lies now and then," said Tim Levine, chair of the Communications Studies Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Most people are pretty good at it, in that you can't tell when they are lying just by watching and listening to them."

But our digital, data-hoarding culture means more and more evidence piles up to undermine our lies. "The research shows the way lies are really uncovered is by comparing what someone is saying to the evidence -- and with all these news analytics that can be done, it's going to enable lie detection in a way that was previously impossible," said Levine.

Peoples' data is already being turned against them.

In Pennsylvania, police are prosecuting a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted earlier this year after data from her Fitbit didn't match up with her story, according Lancaster Online. According to an arrest affidavit, data collected by the device showed the woman "was awake and walking around at the time she claimed she was sleeping," the outlet reported. That, along with other evidence the police allege didn't line up, led investigators to believe the woman knowingly filed a false report.

But the full scope of how our increasingly networked and documented lives can catch deceptions can be hard to fathom.

Social media is one obvious component: Your boss will likely ask questions if you say you're home sick, but get tagged in pictures from what looks suspiciously like a weekend getaway, for instance. In fact, insurance investigators have long tried to dig up pictures from Facebook that seem to contradict workers' compensation claims.

And just like you can Google a fact to end an argument, instant messaging programs that archive digital conversations make it easy to look back and see exactly who said what -- and if it matches up with what a person is saying now.

"Lying online can be very dangerous," explained psychologist Jeff Hancock during a 2012 TEDxWinnipeg talk. "Not only are you leaving a record for yourself on your machine, but you're leaving a record on the person that you were lying to."

But even if you don’t lie online, your digital trail may undermine the lies you tell in real life. Perhaps without even realizing it, you've already probably told Google more than even your closest confidant: With every search, the company learns a little bit more about you -- maybe what restaurant you're planning to go to for dinner when you look up the menu, or maybe something more serious like the symptoms of some anxiety-inducing medical condition.

But you don't need to be actively spilling your secrets to have technology collect data that could catch your falsehoods -- plenty of devices and services are passively sucking up information that could undermine attempts at deception.

Online advertising companies, for instance, can collect huge amounts of information about a person's browsing history, which can reveal "a very comprehensive dossier of what you've been up to" on the Internet, according to Jonathan Mayer, a lawyer and computer scientist affiliated with Stanford's Center for Internet and Society -- not all of which might match up with the persona you present in real life.

And if you have a smartphone, you're carrying around a highly sophisticated tracking and eavesdropping device. Even programs on your phone you don't necessarily expect to keep tabs on your location, like a flashlight app, might be tracking every move you make.

[Flashlight app kept users in the dark about sharing location data: FTC]

But your phone isn't the only device watching: Smart thermostats and security systems know when you're home. And, of course, your fitness tracker could betray you: If you tell someone you're heading to the gym, but end up laying around watching bad reality television instead, the data it collects will reflect your laziness -- or, as the Pennsylvania case suggests, perhaps even more serious deceptions.

Some sort of legal process is generally needed to access the non-public of these data troves, Mayer said -- so there's a limit to how much they can be used to force honesty at the moment. "If the price of invalidating a lie is starting a lawsuit -- I think it's safe to say we won't be invalidating a lot of lies," he said.

But there are less than legal ways to get around that: "One of the most common fact patterns in federal hacking cases is folks with some sort of relationship -- be it business, or other personal -- stealing another person's password," said Mayer.

And some have envisioned a world where technology changes social norms so radically that people are constantly broadcasting their lives in such a way that lies and secrets become practically impossible -- as in Dave Egger's 2013 novel "The Circle."

That dystopia, where a tech giant pushes an Orwellian mantra "secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft" seems a little far-fetched, but there may be a kernel of truth. "Now, when you are about to say or do something, we can think, do I want this to be part of my legacy, part of my personal record? Because in the digital age we live in now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record," Hancock said in his TED talk.

Still, even though almost everyone fibs from time to time, they may not have too much to worry about, according to Levine: His research suggests that a huge proportion of lies are told by small number of truly prolific liars.

"Basically, we lie when the truth is a problem,"  he explained. "For most people, the truth doesn't pose that much of an issue -- so they don't have a reason to lie all the time."

In theory, he said, the web of data collection that surrounds us might help shine a light on those bad actors. "The bad thing is that it invades all of our privacy," he joked.