LIFT: Genevieve Bell, “Secrets, lies & digital deceptions”

I love digital ethnographers and anthropologists! LIFT08 had a strong program of anthropological and ethnographic research and practice. Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist at Intel (which sounds like a great gig!). She gave an insightful presentation about digital deception based upon a solid understanding of human behaviour around secrets and lies. She argues that understanding secrets and lies provides better insight into issues of privacy and security.

Fascinating stuff – watch the video:

Presentation notes after the jump…

Presentation Notes:


  • UK survey 2006, nearly half of mobile users actively lie about where they are; Hi honey, “I’m on my way home” – yeah, right!
  • 100% of people on online dating sites lie about themselves; men about height, woemen about we
  • we are entering an arms race of deception; for every bit of transparency, there is a service to lie about it;
  • people lie about where they are in mobile; people lie about height/weight in online dating; entering an era of accelerating deception;

What do anthropology theory and tools reveal about digital deception?

Perspective: technology transforms far more rapidly than social/cultural changes; difficult for us as technologists to understand this limitation, and is rather confounding to Intel (hence they have 30 anthropologists!)

Secrets and Lies; lies – untruths, secrets – knowledge that is withheld;

Cultural Ideals about Secrets & Lies: legal systems and religious doctrine always against lying and deception; there are certain exceptions in certain situations; bringing peace to households, between households and among nations; lies are ok if the end is good;

Cultural Practices about Secrets & Lies: we’re telling lies all the time; we tell 6-200 lies a day – from greasing the social skids to much more complicated and intense; motivations: conceiling misbehaviour, not many about increasing popularity; men tell more lies, women are better at it; secrets are kept and broken irrespective of status at law or socially

Other Perspectives: Social theorists that argue lying is a necessary part of daily life; Steignitz – the lie is not about negating truth, but about negating a particular kind of reality; Sommer – self-deception is part of survival; a core behaviour as part of learning about identity; playful act of working out the rules;

Notion that all info should be avail to everyone is very recent; you see various cultures resist this and place gates around their traditions – Australian aboriginals; the secret and the sacred – not all knowledge should be in the public domain; the public domain is actually coded and you need to have knowledge to understand what you are seeing;

Similar playfulness and practice is happening in the digital sphere; avatars, playfulness, codes can be read in a number of different ways; withholding info is a way keeping it safe; what we withhold and why is about keeping ourselves safe;

New ICTs arrive in the land of secrets and lies; lying about where, who, what you are doing are all dissembled online; some of this is required

Dana Boyd looking at age on MySpace is lied about, stunning number of people over 100, which begs credibility; the price of participation is a lie – your must be over 14 to join because of law;

Online dating sites – unlike lies in physical world that result in guilty or shame, lies online results in something approaching glee; lies are flourishing;

PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard. e.g. “My prom date was gay…I pretended not to know.”

Cell phones have tracking services attending them by the parent of children; surveillance can be culturally reconfigured; children with tracking said their parents love them more; alibi services – creative a backstory to support your lie;


Tensions between cultural ideas and cultural practices are important and significant; a lot of what we see going on in tech and behaviour are us sorting these tensions out

Secrets & lies is a useful way of reworking notions around privacy and security; systems and networks infrastructure are concerned about privacy and security; people are concerned about they things they don’t want to have told, their secrets and their strategy for getting around this is telling lies

What are the implications about how we build social networking sites, building web 3.0 on a bedrock of confabulation?

How does it fit into larger conversations about national security, safety and danger?

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