The Search For Reasons, Plausible Deniability

Contents:
  1. The logic of indirect speech
  2. Navigation menu
  3. Plausible deniability
  4. State Proxies & Plausible Deniability: Challenging Conventional Wisdom - News

If some officers are corrupt and would accept the bribe, but others are honest and might arrest the driver for bribery, an indirect bribe can be detected by the corrupt cop while not being blatant enough for the honest cop to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. A simple game-theoretic model can delineate the circumstances in which indirect speech is an optimal solution to this problem.

The logic of indirect speech

The second part of theory extends the game-theoretic logic to social situations in which there are no fines or other tangible costs and benefits, such as a diner without a restaurant reservation who bribes a maitre d' for a quick table, or a person who tenders a sexual invitation to a friend after a dinner. Unlike the driver and the officer, the speaker would incur no financial or judicial penalty were the hearer to turn down a blatant proposition, so the question here is why speakers still resort to innuendo.

The third part addresses scenarios in which people use indirect speech even when the degree of uncertainty about the other's intentions is low—either because variance among listeners' values is low so speakers' confidence in their values is high , or because the listener is astute enough to understand the intent of a speaker's innuendo with high confidence. Why, in such cases, is a thinly veiled proposition still more acceptable than a naked one? The answer must pertain to some property of overt language itself, as opposed to the processes of social inference that power the interpretation of innuendo.

Consider a speaker whose speech obeys Grice's maxims 5 of efficient communication and is thereby always succinct, truthful, direct, and relevant. He is pulled over for running a red light and is pondering whether to bribe the officer. Unfortunately, he doesn't know whether the officer is corrupt and will accept the bribe or is honest and will arrest him for attempting to bribe an officer. The game-theoretic conundrum where one actor does not know the values of the other has been explored by Thomas Schelling, who calls it the Identification Problem 9.

The payoffs are as follows. If the driver doesn't try to bribe the officer first row , either way he gets a ticket; if he does offer the bribe second row , the stakes are much higher either way: Suppose he knows that the officer can recognize it as an intended bribe, and that the officer knows that he couldn't make a bribery charge stick in court because the ambiguous wording would prevent a prosecutor from proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The driver now has a third option:. The payoffs in this third row combine the very large advantage of bribing a dishonest cop with the relatively small penalty of failing to bribe an honest one. In these circumstances, indirect speech is the rational option. Note how this analysis is inconsistent with the traditional idea that indirect speech is an implementation of pure cooperation: The driver here is using indirect speech not to help the honest officer attain his goal viz. The intuition that indirect speech can be an optimal strategy can be confirmed in a simple model of a Rational Briber.

The expected cost of a bribe y can be calculated from i the proportion of officers that are honest, q ; ii the cost of the bribe, c 0 ; iii the cost of the ticket, c 1 which must be greater than the cost of the bribe, or it would never pay to bribe ; iv the cost of an arrest for bribery, c 2 which must be greater than the cost of the ticket; otherwise, it would always pay to bribe ; and, the crucial psychological variable, v the probability p that an officer will treat a statement with a given degree of directness d as an attempted bribe.

Directness is a semantic variable that corresponds to the degree of vagueness of the proposition the number of readings and the proportion of those readings that are consistent with its being a bribe rather than an innocent remark. In practice, p can be estimated empirically by asking people their degree of confidence that a given sentence was intended as a bribe. Finally, the target of the indirect speech must decide how to react to the proposition; this tendency can be captured by a decision function, L , which monotonically relates the directness of the proposition to the probability that the officer will treat it as an attempted bribe and act accordingly.

Now, if the corrupt and honest cops share a single linear decision function L and hence have the same p for any proposition, the optimal level of directness will simply be determined by the fraction of honest officers. In this model, so far, indirect speech is never an optimum strategy. The reason is that the cost functions are linear in d Fig. The expected cost to a driver of tendering bribes to honest and corrupt police officers with linear decision functions. For an indirect bribe to be advantageous to the driver, his overall cost function must be nonlinear.

This situation could come about if the honest and corrupt officers employ nonlinear decision functions L h and L c relating the probability they will act p to the directness of the bribe d , and if the two decision functions are distinct. In general, the expected cost for the driver is as follows: In the simple case in which L h and L c are step functions, the scenario may be displayed as in Fig.

The expected cost to a driver of tendering bribes to honest and corrupt police officers with nonlinear decision rules. The expected cost for the driver is as follows: This result confirms that there are plausible circumstances in which indirect speech is an optimal strategy and is a formal implementation of the everyday concept of plausible deniability. The result does not depend on the officers' decision rules L h and L c being step-functions. They could also be sigmoid functions such as logistic or normal-ogive.

The results also hold when there are distributions of the threshold parameters in the two populations of police officers. I'm very sorry for speeding. I know I'll have to pay for my mistake.

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I admire officers doing their duty. Can I make a contribution to the policeman's benevolent association? Is there some way we could avoid the paperwork and settle it here? How plausible is the key assumption that the decision functions of honest and dishonest officers differ?

Plausible deniability

The answer depends on the determinants of their cost functions. Take the honest officer: The reason is that even if all dishonest drivers offer remarks that can be interpreted correctly as implicated bribes, some honest drivers make those remarks too, as innocent observations this is inherent to the definition of indirectness , so any arrest might be unsuccessful. An unsuccessful arrest might be costly to the officer, exposing him to a charge of false arrest and the police department to punitive damages. The cost to the honest officer of arresting the driver will thus depend on the proportion of dishonest and honest drivers who utter a remark with that level of directness, and on the professional rewards for successful arrests and the penalties for false ones.

Conversely, for a dishonest cop, the cost depends on the amount of the bribe, the chances of his being arrested in a sting operation, and the penalty for being convicted of accepting a bribe. It is unlikely that the two decision functions would have the same shape. The second puzzle of indirect speech is why people use it in nonlegal situations, where there are no financial or legal payoffs and penalties.

Consider bribery in everyday life, such as bribing a maitre d' at a popular restaurant to be seated immediately despite having no reservation. A key to this puzzle comes from Politeness Theory 1 , which proposes that language serves two purposes: People achieve these dual ends by using language at two levels.

The literal form of a sentence is consistent with the safest relationship between speaker and hearer. At the same time, by implicating a meaning between the lines, the speaker counts on the listener to infer its real intent, which may initiate a different relationship. The hearer implicitly reasons: Therefore, he must be requesting it.

This reticence raises the question of what kind of relationships, other than dominance, people are mindful of when choosing their words. Alan Fiske 11 has advanced the strong claim that human relationships in all cultures fall into only three distinct types and that most of the complexities of social life within and across cultures may be explained in terms of variation as to which relationship type applies to a given dyad.

Each relationship type is characterized by an ethos governing the distribution of resources between participants, and a straightforward evolutionary basis that specifies which kinds of dyads fall into that type of relationship by default. However, each relationship type can be extended to other dyads by negotiation and manipulation:.

It is generally communicated by psychophysical cues to strength and resolve It can be extended to others by nonverbal cues of solidarity such as physical contact, communal meals, and coordinated movements and experiences It is usually signaled by tit-for-tat exchanges or division into equal portions but, unlike the other two relationship types, can be negotiated by people via explicit verbal contracts The assumed relationship type among a pair of individuals has dramatic effects on the behavior that is acceptable between them; not surprisingly, given that the relationship type governs the acceptable distribution of resources in a given social setting 13 , Behavior that is acceptable in one relationship type can thus be anomalous in another.

For example, at a party, one might help oneself to a shrimp off the plate of one's spouse or sibling or close friend communality , but not off the plate of one's boss dominance. Also, a guest at a dinner party communality would be perceived as crass, not fair, if at the end of the meal he pulled out his wallet and offered to pay his host for the meal reciprocity.

Good friends communality are advised not to engage in a business transaction reciprocity , like the sale of a car or a house, which can endanger the friendship.


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The ambiguity between dominance and sex a kind of communal relationship is the battleground of sexual harassment conflicts, and the ambiguity between friendship and sex gives rise to the frisson of dating. The ultimate reason that relationship mismatches impose emotional costs and hence motivate the parties to align their behavior with one relationship type or another is the familiar principle from biology that cooperation is evolutionarily fragile because it is vulnerable to cheaters , and that each variety of cooperation depends on a particular set of circumstances being in place for the cooperation to be adaptive 18 , Depending on their ecological niche and evolutionary antecedents, different organisms may cooperate via nepotism, mutualism, or reciprocity, or they may not cooperate at all, ceding resources via contests of dominance.

Humans avail themselves of all of these options, facultatively choosing among them on the basis of their current social context rather than on a fixed, phylogenetically typical one.

State Proxies & Plausible Deniability: Challenging Conventional Wisdom - News

The anxiety surrounding relationship mismatches is the price we pay for having multiple, context-specific ways of allocating resources available, with the consequence that a given type of behavior can vary radically in its adaptive value depending on which scheme is currently in effect. For example, helping yourself to a person's food or other resources can be a prerogative in the context of one relationship type but a case of theft in another. Ordering someone around can be a requirement of your job in one setting but a case of extortion in another.

The fraught nature of divergent relationships gives rise to a social identification problem that is isomorphic to the legal identification problem described by Schelling 9. In this case, the emotional cost of a relationship mismatch duplicates the payoff matrix of other risky propositions. Take the ambiguity between the authority relationship ordinarily commanded by a maitre d' in which he assigns tables as he pleases and the reciprocity relationship suggested by a diner offering a bribe in which the maitre d' would be bound to offer a table in exchange for the bribe.

The payoff matrix is identical in structure to the one for bribing a police officer, but the payoffs are reckoned by matches or mismatches in the assumed relationship between the two parties rather than in dollars and cents:. There is one remaining problem, which arises in cases where speakers use indirect speech despite a lack of genuine uncertainty on the part of one or both of the conversational partners. One such case is when the Identification Problem does not arise because the values of the listener are known—for example, if all of the police officers or maitre d's in a given city are known to be bribable.

Another occurs when an indirect proposition is so conventional or transparent as to leave no doubt in the hearer's mind as to what was intended the probability that it is interpreted as intended is close to 1. That is, in many circumstances, both parties know when an overture has been made by innuendo. This circumstance is addressed by the third part of the theory, which holds that language is tacitly perceived to be a digital medium.

Discreteness is in the very design of human language. Features, morphemes, words, and phrases are concatenated, not blended, and each one's contribution to the meaning of the whole is qualitative: A sound that is halfway between to bat and to pat does not refer to an action that is halfway between batting and patting. Moreover, in all languages, real-world continua of space, time, and matter are digitized into discrete categories such as in versus on , past versus nonpast, and pebbles versus gravel 4 , Propositions with discrete truth values, too, may be conveyed through the choice and arrangement of words.

This does not imply that in practice linguistic information is transmitted with perfect fidelity the phenomenon of indirect speech is an example to the contrary , but the intuition that language is a reliable medium is widespread as a folk theory of language 21 , and belief in it may affect how people choose and interpret their words. This hypothesis has at least three corollaries. First, overt propositions are perceived as certain , as opposed to merely highly likely. The relevance to relationship negotiation is that the signals of many relationship types may be analogue and highly ambiguous.

How close does a man have to sit to a woman, how lavishly can he compliment her looks, and how secluded are the locales he leads her to before she concludes that his intentions are sexual, and must be accepted or rebuffed? A focal point is a salient location that two rational agents can agree on when they would be better off coordinating their behavior than acting independently, and when there is no rational basis for choosing one value over another.

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Examples include a prominent landmark in a city where separated spouses agree to meet, or a round number that a buyer and seller in a negotiation can settle on. Although the preference for a focal point when one exists is an inherently rational strategy that does not depend on details of the agents' psychology, the question of whether a focal point exists, and where in the problem space it lies, depends on details of the local environment and on common properties of the agents' perceptual and cognitive systems that predictably single out the same point as psychologically salient.

The deniability, then, doesn't have to be plausible, only possible. A second corollary of language as a digital medium invokes Erving Goffman's hypothesis 23 that people always behave as if they are playing to an audience. A crucial feature of indirect speech is that it can be interpreted only in context.

The hearer's interpretation taps into many aspects of the context, such as the lead-up to the speech act, the speaker's body language, or his tone of voice. Overt propositions, in contrast, may be perceived as context-free —their intent can be interpreted by eavesdroppers—and lossless —their intent can be transmitted perfectly along chains of gossipers in the same way that other digital media, such as files of music or images, can be transmitted losslessly.

According to this hypothesis, the deniability is plausible to the virtual audience, even if it is not particularly plausible to the hearer, and people tacitly consult the reactions of a virtual audience in retaining or switching relationship types. The ultimate reason is that relationship types are not solely dyadic but depend in part on the tacit ratification of a community, which may be necessary to back up the authority of a dominant figure; yoke the interests of couples, families, and other communal groups; or disseminate information about the probity of reciprocating partners The third corollary invokes a concept that linguists, logicians, and economists have called common knowledge, mutual knowledge, and common ground 2 , 9 , 25 — In common knowledge, not only does A know x and B know x , but A knows that B knows x , and B knows that A knows x , and A knows that B knows that A knows x , ad infinitum.

In this case, it could be the formula y: As this use of circumstantial evidence becomes more widely accepted, the plausible deniability associated with proxies becomes harder to claim. Therefore, whilst difficulties in attribution contribute to the appeal of proxies, a state's ability to claim plausible deniability has arguably been overemphasised. But, given the popularity of proxies in the cyber domain, they must appeal for other reasons. Proxies appeal for a variety of reasons. One of the most significant drivers is a process of power diffusion. Characteristics of the cyber domain have facilitated the growth of a number of non-state actors.


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Given the low barriers to entry, a number of non-traditional actors are able to make meaningful contributions. Unlike fighter jets and navy vessels, sophisticated tools in the cyber domain can be developed by small businesses and starts-ups. Given the current shortage of cyber security related skills, governments struggle to compete with the salaries offered by the private sector or the economic opportunities that exist in online criminal activity.

GCHQ has struggled to retain employees with technically capable staff able to command considerably higher salaries in the private sector. For less powerful states, proxies provide an opportunity to bolster their capability in a power balancing process against stronger adversaries. Cyber militias in a number of weaker states such as Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan have all threatened to retaliate against future Russian cyber or kinetic attacks.

When states lack internal capability, proxies offer a viable strategy to help balance the odds. Working with proxies may also reflect national culture.


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The Kremlin has historically held ties with organised crime and mafia groups and these relationships have extended into the cyber domain. As previously discussed in this blog, within Estonia, a number of political, cultural and historical characteristics facilitate the participation of civil society state cyber security activity. States may also use proxies as they are cost effective.

Outsourcing means that states are not faced with a range of costs including sick leave, holiday pay and training of full-time employees. This is especially attractive given that returns on investment in training are particularly low: In addition, as the power diffusion process has empowered a number of actors, states should have a healthy choice of firms and organisations to work with, theoretically increasing the efficiency and driving down the costs of outsourcing.

It is clear states need to utilise proxies effectively in the cyber domain; plausible deniability being one of a number of benefits. Yet, government officials should proceed with caution. Proxy actors operate outside the control of government, affording them an unpredictability unwelcome by policymakers. With proxy actors representing a risky, albeit necessary, resource, perhaps the real challenge for states is learning when to say no. PGI Cyber Academy offers the highest level of cyber security training for business and government professionals.

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