Compliance at the Dryden

The Eastman House calendar had this to say:

The disturbing true story of a prank call delivered to a fast food restaurant comes to life in Craig Zobel’s (The Great World of Sound) controversial new film. Night manager Sandra — convinced that the police have fingered one of her employees — falls victim to the persuasive and commanding voice on the phone. Grimly depicting human readiness to obey higher authority, Zobel’s provocative film is a sure conversation-starter.

As I've mentioned to people, it was kind of preaching to the converted. In the post-screening discussion, there were skeptics: "people aren't that impressionable," or "I wouldn't do that", or "the filmmaker took liberties as things didn't get that bad". But I was pretty sure things did get that bad (although according to the moderator of the post-film discussion, it was in the worst of the 70 some-odd occurrences, and actually less-severely portrayed on film), people do fall for that, and even I could be manipulated that way. (Although my disdain for claimed "authority" makes me a tad more resistant.)

So let me back up a little.

The perpetrator – in this case, a man calling himself Officer Daniels – was using the known techniques of social engineering to manipulate his victims. It's a technique most frequently used in crimes of technology, and it rarely involves more than a brief conversation. One might call a bank (presumably with what looks like an internal number) for instance, and ask innocently, "oh, is this computer support?", "no, dang. Do you have the number handy?" Then they call that number, jot down the name of the person who answers, and ask, "Jim, hey — is it possible to get my Kindle on the network?", "no, I figured I'd ask anyway." Then jee calls someone else, "hi, this is Jim from computer support. I just,want to take a minute to check your IP address." I think you can see how with a large organization, it's easy to get small pieces of information out of a number of people which, when aggregated, is a tremendous amount of knowledge about the organization as a whole.

The exotic thing about this perpetrator is that he would stay on the phone for a long time — not only in the total duration, but with each individual person. One thing he was exploiting was to use an actor as a vetted source. At the start of the most disturbing segment, Sandra hands the phone to her boyfriend with the terse instruction, "this is Officer Daniels. He's a police officer. Do what he says." In that, he used Sandra to artificially create authority in the boyfriend's mind. Imagine if, with no explanation, your significant other handed you a phone and said that? Would your first thought really be, "I'm going to assume this is a stranger and figure it out for myself"? Of course not. Just like when you're introduced with a line, "this is my father", you automatically bestow respect — you don't say, "prove it."

Being part of the labor series, the moderator (whose name I can't remember and can't find off hand) tried to steer the discussion to one that damns the authoritarian hierarchy of low-level jobs, particularly fast-food employers. While I have disdain for that structure, I thought the reason for the behaviors portrayed had much more to do with human nature: it is in our nature as social creatures to want to help one another and that we take shortcuts to validate trust. Without those mechanisms, our society would be in a constant state of deadlock. Authoritarian hierarchy exploits those traits to business advantage, and in that way is a contributing factor to the efficiency by which "Officer Daniels" could dispatch his psychopathic plan.

What is there to thwart this behavior, though? In general, I think it is to respect anonymity of technology. A voice on the phone — just like the letters of a text message or e-mail — are not equivalent to a face-to-face conversation. If we treat indirect communication as an unreliable source, we can help avoid such situations.

It is also important to remember that we grant authority and that it is not bestowed, for the other key piece of the story is "Officer" Daniels' impersonation of a police officer. When authority is granted, there is always an option for independent thought and personal responsibility, but if it's believed to be bestowed, then an officer can bestow authority, and assume responsibility, both of which are but dangerous illusions.

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