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The Reykjavik Confessions (bbc.co.uk)
198 points by marcopolis on May 15, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments



An example, I'm afraid, of situations that happen all too often around the world. When we look at the justice system as any other abstract system (with positive/negative feedback loops) we find that the actors (the judges, prosecutors, investigators, etc.) are never rewarded for finding the truth. After all, how can you ever know that you found the truth? They are rewarded for finding a truth. For making the picture fit.

And that is why you should never collaborate with (or trust) the system. They aren't interested in what's good for you, they are interested in what's good for themselves: finding someone to convict and thereby pushing their yearly evaluation into the positives.

[ed.: typo]


> ...They aren't interested in what's good for you, they are interested in what's good for themselves:...

Very true, but then that's why the aversarial justice system is so important. It's ok for prosecutors and police to use every means legally at their disposal to try and prove someone guilty, as long as that person has an independent advocate with sufficient authority to protect the accused and challenge the prosecution case.

The problem here is that the way these people were treated was perfectly legal and even morally acceptable at the time. Clearly lengthy unecessary periods of solitary confinement, drugs and agressive interrogation without an advocate present should be completely unacceptable. They even used simulated drowning. The paraelells to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the treatment of Bradley Manning and CIA waterboarding are stark. It's pretty clear that these kind of abuses simply do not work.

People subjected to these treatments will say, and even come to believe absolutely anything, so any information that comes out of such processes is worthless. That's completely aside from the deep immorality of using such techniques in the first place. ALl it does is provides moral cover and justification for oppressive regimes to use such techniques completely indiscriminately.


"It's ok for prosecutors and police to use every means legally at their disposal to try and prove someone guilty, as long as that person has an independent advocate with sufficient authority to protect the accused and challenge the prosecution case."

I don't necessarily agree with that. The defense should be using every means available, the prosecution should restrict themselves to things that get at the truth. As extreme examples, presenting fabricated evidence or withholding exculpatory evidence would clearly be unacceptable even if laws were changed to allow it. I am not remotely confident that laws proscribe everything they should proscribe.


The problem isn't so much centered on the "shoulds"/ideals it's centered on reality and a more game theoretic approach. Instead of everyone crossing their heart to be good... how do you make the desired outcome have the least friction in being realized?


I don't think the game theoretic approach is wrong, but you're ignoring that threat of censure (explicit or implicit, formal or informal) is an important part of the system, and in that dimension the informal ideals and "shoulds" are highly relevant, and need to be factored into the game theoretic analysis. If a prosecutor knows that they'll get accolades for exploiting a new way to screw defendants, that's a different system than if they know they'll face condemnation for it, even if there's nothing formal.


<snip> agressive interrogation without an advocate present should be completely unacceptable <snip>

LOL, that is the standard in much of Europe today. That is of course not incongruent with what you said - it just nuances your 'at the time'.


Is the adversarial system really any better or worse than the inquisitorial system (I believe they use the latter in Iceland):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adversarial_system

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisitorial_system


As the inquisitorial system came out of the inquisition NO is the obvious answer.


It doesn't make sense to me to say that torture is ineffective simply because subjects have incentive in the face of torture to say or believe anything.

For example, it doesn't matter if a person keeps on outputting contradictory claims of reality. What matters is if this person can produce evidence of novel knowledge. And of course even if someone delivered information in a non-tortuous interrogation, any government would fact-check.

I also don't believe it's very easy to confuse someone's existing memories. I don't think I can simply torture somebody, with professionals and equipment at my disposal, and cause discrete changes in beliefs ("My real name is Reek!").

These world governments no doubt have data on varying techniques of torture, and I have no doubt there has been a very long race, begun awhile ago, to map out the theory of torture, and I think it is a bit preliminary to say that torture doesn't work until we get a hold of some systematically collected data.


> What matters is if this person can produce evidence of novel knowledge.

Except that in most cases you can't distinguish novel knowledge from made-up bullshit with real certainty. If you could, you wouldn't have to torture them. And don't bother dredging up contrived ticking-bomb scenarios where it's different - yes, they exist, but they are anything but common and even then often not clear cut.

And that's not even touching on the fact that you almost never have 100% certainty that the suspect actually knows what you want them to tell you at all.

> And of course even if someone delivered information in a non-tortuous interrogation, any government would fact-check.

No. Most of them wouldn't, when they've just been told what they wanted to hear. Or (worst but common case) they'll fact-check by arresting the people the victim just named and torturing them as well.

> I also don't believe it's very easy to confuse someone's existing memories.

Your belief is utterly wrong. Read the goddamn article. And that wasn't even using physical torture. Heck, people's memory often enough get confused all of their own. People suck at remembering events clearly.

> These world governments no doubt have data on varying techniques of torture, and I have no doubt there has been a very long race, begun awhile ago, to map out the theory of torture, and I think it is a bit preliminary to say that torture doesn't work until we get a hold of some systematically collected data.

Hopefully that will never happen (it pretty definitely hasn't happend so far; some of the Nazi medical experiments may have come close but had a different focus), the consensus among people with actual experience seems to be clear: intel gained through torture is of worse quality than that gained through other interrogation techniques, and employing torture has many negative effects on your own side.

http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2011/05/interrogation-experts-f...


What I had in mind when I was thinking of novel data, would be someone who can authenticate the value of their potentially false claims by stating something that nobody else could know. Like the serial killer who states special information. An alternative situation could be those who are looking for cryptography keys. I still believe that the presence of novel data could help a torturous interrogator sieve desperate lies from actionable data.

Confirmation of novel data that nobody else could've known authenticates the value of your knowledge. Government may have been reckless before by acting before confirming, but if they just include a confirmation step, then they could have a means of differentiating actionable data from junk.

After looking over the site, and doing some Wikipedia searching, it does appear that there are ways to reliably damage or confuse memory, even in innocuous settings. Such as ads meant to manipulate memory.

The last point is the one I wanted to make, because I felt that arguments about the efficacy of torture is similar to arguments about the financial costs of the death penalty -- it's a highly ephemeral and gambling argument that hinges on the state of science or technology.

So I was wondering what happens to the discussion on ethics once we begin to accept the efficacy of torture?


It's trivially easy to implant false memories. Here's Aza Raskin doing it to an audience just using a single question: http://vimeo.com/15886853#t=21m27s Also, you should look up Beth Rutherford's story. Edit: Oh, her story is actually earlier in the video. I guess it's pretty famous by now.


This is an interesting insight into the dangers of ill-chosen metrics. It could only happen in a system in which the police were expected to produce (and were in various ways rewarded for) convictions instead of e.g. a maximally accurate presentation of events that can be used to decide how society should respond.

Convictions are far easier to measure (and achieve, of course). How would you go about constructing an efficient, corruption-resistant system that is measured by its accuracy? It seems like a hard problem, but not necessarily an unsolvable one.

Debugging support issues sometimes feels like this. If you go into a complex system looking for bugs then you'll find plenty - but not necessarily the one that's causing the current issue. What you're really looking for is to fully understand the reason the system does what it does. And then you can change it.

Also: further evidence that information produced under torture cannot be relied upon, yet our states still do this. Perhaps sometimes it works? Or is it just very successful in producing "information" that the system wants and expects to receive, which is then interpreted as an objective success that validates the method?

Kind of difficult to study that.

Perhaps an "ends cannot be used to justify means" principle is simply a necessary precondition for benevolent civilization.


A nice formulation of the first part of yout post is Goodhart's Law: If you use a correlated metric to measure something qualitative, people will optimize toward the metric, and it'll stop correlating.

Some reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart's_law

http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ws/the_importance_of_goodharts_law/


See also: the breakdown of the link structure of the web because of the rise of google.


> Also: further evidence that information produced under torture cannot be relied upon, yet our states still do this. Perhaps sometimes it works? Or is it just very successful in producing "information" that the system wants and expects to receive, which is then interpreted as an objective success that validates the method?

Both, really. There is certainly a small class of scenarios where it does work, but you cannot know in advance where your case is in that class. And is great at making it look like you're "getting results" if you don't look to closely.

Another factor: torture is definitely good for maintaining a "reign of terror" style of regime. Until it isn't. I think there's even a passage in Macchiavelli's "The Prince" (i.e. the opus that basically coined the "end justify means" meme) that says ruling people by making them love you is most effective but impossible to do all the time, so ruling through fear is the next best thing - yet one should carefully avoid being hated.

> Perhaps an "ends cannot be used to justify means" principle is simply a necessary precondition for benevolent civilization.

As a basic principle, definitely. Though no simple rule can solve all moral dilemmas.


The woman involved, Erla Bolladottir, was my Icelandic language teacher when I moved to Iceland. She is an extraordinarily kind and helpful person, and it angers and saddens me that she has been put through this nightmare because of lousy police-work and ill will.


"Geirfinnur Einarsson may have shared the same surname as Gudmundur but the two were not related."

Very minor nitpick. "Einarsson" is a patronymic derived from a parent's given name, not a surname or family name as is common in many western cultures. In the case of the article, Einar is a common Icelandic given name [1] that both victims fathers shared.

The Icelandic naming system [2] is interesting. Basically, children get a given name plus a patronymic (father's give name with son or dóttir suffix) or matronymic (mother's given name with son or dóttir suffix). So people two generations apart in the same family have completely different names, and non-siblings having the same patronymic isn't an indicator of kinship.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einar

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_name


The article does, however, correctly refer to people by their given names. You would never refer to Geirfinnur Einarsson by "Einarsson" or "Mr. Einarsson"; even in a formal context, even if he were the president or other high-status person, you'd use either "Geirfinnur" or "Geirfinnur Einarsson".


Interestingly thought it's easy to find press releases and related material from the Icelandic government itself which uses Icelandic patronyms as surnames. E.g. [1] from the Icelandic Minstry for Foreign Affairs referring to the foreign minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson as "Mr. Sveinsson".

1. http://eng.utanrikisraduneyti.is/news-and-publications/nr/77...


I wouldn't be surprised if this came from whatever translation office the ministry uses.


It's possible but I think this was probably done to make things simpler for the reader. Often this is to comply with rules. For example in international sports the jerseys will usually have "Einarsson" or "Guðmundsdóttir" on the back which is very confusing. Another example are children who were born outside of the country and had to be given their father's last name (so names like Anna Jónsson exist).

There are also many stories of couples who were not allowed to get a hotel room together because they didn't share a last name.


An ex co-worker of mine had that happen to him. Him and his wife traveled to Austria in the 80s and were having trouble checking into a room in some rural town because it didn't seem as though they were married.

He was able to find an encyclopedia on a bookshelf in the lobby that said something to the effect of "In Iceland women do not take their husband's name when they marry". That resolved that situation.


Historically it was much the same across Scandinavia.

Most surnames end in son (sen in Denmark) or dotter (daughter), although people started using their parent's surname some time last century.

Its fun to see the tradition survives in Iceland.

In Sweden its becoming slightly trendy to give your children surnames ending in YOUR-FIRST-NAME+possessive+son/dotter again.


That tradition, or the remnants of it (as in retaining -sen as a family name rather than as a patronymic) seem to have almost disappeared in my part of Norway.


Yes, this patronymic naming is common in South Asia. Except they go one step further and put the surname in front of the given name. So if your father's name is X and your personal name is Y, formally you are called X Y.

I am from Africa where this weird inconsistency meant that many of my personal records have my given name as my dad's name and my name as my surname. Made the paper trail confusing as fuck when I came to America and had to prove that I was who I was.


Yeah this alway made for fun holidays when I was a kid; my dad last name is Ólafsson, my mom's Magnusdóttir, my sister's Hlynsdóttir and mine Hlynsson. Hotel staff often could not get that at all.


Hah, add to that the confusion that me and my sister have the patronymic from our father's second name.


Russians have an interesting mix there. Family name is used, but it is common to address the person by given name and patronymic.


People confess to crimes they didn't commit all the time, yet confessions are the end game in most judicial systems, way over hard proofs... A very sad state of affairs...

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/why-do-inno...

And obligatory, Jame's Duane's "Don't talk to the cops" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkZf6_jK3Zs


Not talking to the police wouldn't have helped the 5 people from the article (although having a lawyer would have helped). They would play a prisoner's dilemma against you, or tell you "your 4 buddies confessed and implicated you, just confess and get a lighter sentence".


I heard of this case growing up and it has always been considered a mystery in Iceland. I haven't followed it closely but this is the best write up of the case I've seen; impressive work by BBC.

While I'm not defending the investigators, a lot has changed in 40 years and even though this might be unacceptable today it was probably different then (as stated in the article). It's very sad to listen to these people talk about how they were treated though.


There doesn't seem much mystery about the first death. A drunk man walks 10 km through freezing cold and snow late at night in winter. Didn't anyone think he had just fallen and died of exposure, and his body was lost in a snowdrift?


Had he just succumbed to exposure next to a road, they should have found the body quite quickly.


With a metre or more of snow falling, assuming he'd be right next to the road isn't logical, he could be any distance from it.

When I was in Iceland I was told that tarred/paved roads are a relatively recent thing, given the volcanic landscape and the large number of fissures and caves, it's easy to see how you could wonder away from the "road", stumble, fall or just try to find shelter somewhere and succumb to the cold.


I live in Iceland now, and while paved roads were not all that common at the time, it's not like they were barely-visible paths through the lava fields either.

But yes, in the area the article is talking about, the ground is a patchwork of these fissures, which could easily conceal a body. On the other hand, there would be almost no way to wander all that far from the road without knowing it.

It's not impossible that he would have died of exposure and never been found, but I don't think it's all that likely.


Maybe he just wanted a nice walk through the lava field? It's a pretty nice place (source: Icelander)

It seems pretty silly to assume a murder with no body or evidence, when another explanation is possible.


I'd agree that it's silly to assume it to the point of excluding all other possibilities, but would also think it reasonable to think foul play was a likely factor when someone heads home from the pub and is never heard from again.


There is a story about a missing child in America where dozens of police went into and out of the house and nobody noticed that the child was frozen in the snow next to the door. So, no, they "shouldn't have".


But they did find the child eventually. It's not like they continued to not notice the body for the next three decades.


It seems that's the tool used by BBC.

http://shorthand.com/


I don't know how much of it comes out of the box, but the article was impressive in in more than just its writing. The only slight annoyances I encountered were the way some pictures appeared too late and the videos lacked length and subject information. Everything else was well paced, relevant and unintrusive.

I hope Shorthand gets picked by more long-form producers.


What a story. So many lives wasted, torture and forced confessions. There are no reparations possible for cases like this, no amount of compensation will turn back the clock and no punishment sufficient to go after the guilty parties (in uniform, no less), assuming they are still alive.

But when you read things like this you inevitably question if what we call 'civilization' really is all that civilized. Iceland is a small nation, relatively few people and tightly knit. It's one of the last places on earth where I would expect a thing like this to happen.

If this could happen there it could happen just about anywhere.

And they are still at it (from TFA):

"For the past year, the 486-page report of the investigation into the original police inquiry has been sitting on a desk somewhere inside the state prosecutor’s office. She has to decide whether the case should be referred to Iceland’s supreme court so the convictions can be quashed."


>If this could happen there it could happen just about anywhere.

"Could"? This does happen everywhere, routinely, every day. Most of it happens to people nobody cares about (foreigners, displaced, lone wolfs, drug addicts, mentally ill, smalltime crooks etc etc). Some of it is corrected with time (which is why you have appeals and counter-appeals in most systems). There is just no incentive for a police force not to incriminate, and little for a judicial system not to convict.

>For the past year, the 486-page report [...] has been sitting on a desk

... and it will likely sit there until all the implicated people have retired and/or they are 100% sure the Icelandic equivalent to the statute of limitations will cover all of them. Because people with related responsibilities know that, in a few years, the same could happen to them for whatever reason, and then who would look after them? At the time, "persuading" a little crook to confess a crime he didn't commit was a perfectly acceptable standard; who knows what standards will be in 20 years time? So invariably these institutions will "let bygones be bygones".

The whole concept of institutional policing is extremely flawed.


> and it will likely sit there until all the implicated people have retired and/or they are 100% sure the Icelandic equivalent to the statute of limitations will cover all of them.

This is not an issue. The statute of limitations in Iceland depends on the possible length of the prison sentence for the crime. The maximum is 15 years, so that's long since passed in all cases.


Frontline has an excellent episode on the Norfolk Four, a similar case that happened in Virginia: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/the-confessions/


In good HN spirit, instead of praising the great quality of the article, I'll point out a minor nitpick:

> Geirfinnur Einarsson may have shared the same surname as Gudmundur but the two were not related.

Einarsson is not a surname, but a patronymic. It's weird that later in the article it reads:

> Erla is longing for peace, so that future generations, the sons and dottirs of her grandchildren will know she was innocent and didn’t take part in a murder.

Here the author seems to grasp and even make a clever pun on Icelandic patronymics. Weird.


A patronymic is functionally a surname. 'sur' means over- or on-; it's an additional part of a personal name. Wikipedia puts it well: "A surname is a name added to a given name and is part of a personal name". Surnames a generally a function of who you were born to, rather than a choice, just like a patronymic.


Well the comment was about people with the same surname being likely relatives. Knowing how patronymics work you would not assume that two persons that share the patronymic are related, just that their fathers have the same name.

You are right in that they are actually a surname, and that they are also a function of who you were born to, but the propagation rule means that they are a much poorer metric for blood relations.


But patronymics are not used in Iceland the way surnames are used in the Anglosphere. For instance, even in a formal context, Geirfinnur Einarsson would not be referred to as "Einarsson" or "Mr. Einarsson". Also, Icelandic phonebooks are ordered primarily by given name.


I read it as the author raising a question that the reader might have, or sharing their process in understanding this fact.


I would love to have my favorite book, "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan recreated in this same web layout. In fact, why AREN'T online books like this?


The Guardian did a good piece "NSA Files Decoded": http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/sno...

For more stories in this format: http://multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/tutorials/taxonomy...


There's "Snow Fall - The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek" by John Branch and published in the New York Times with a similar format: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/


I've hard this style referred to as 'Snow Fall Journalism', actually!


While the story was interesting, I was also more interested in the layout. In the past there were a lot of "over the top" Flash "experience" sites, with the decline of Flash and skyrocket of "thumb up and down" mobile sites I feel there has also been a drop in experimental layouts and visuals. A lot of that stuff was crap, but it's great to be surprised every now and then. Thumbs up bbc!


I generally like the Snowfall-style articles, but for some reason this is the first time where I felt a (very vague) sense that the style was overshadowing the content a little. That said, I prefer a little more experimentation in this area over staying safe...


I felt the exact opposite, that this was the first time the content overshadowed the flashiness. I read it on a relatively low-end machine, so it's possible the flashy stuff was just disabled, which in itself would be great.


Strangely I came to comment because I had the opposite reaction. I couldn't read the article because I find the presentation way too noisy (and in general can't stand vertical scrolling much.)


I don't like the lack of information density.


This is one more reason why police and prosecutors should be individually bonded. This would pay, up front, for liability, and it would wash out the careless and incompetent.

Without institutional incentives to produce good results, the incentives to produce more results, faster results, and more lurid results will continue to produce bad results.


God, this makes me so sad. Being persuaded into admitting guilt to a crime that you have no idea about sounds bizaare but I am sure this case wasn't the last.


At roughly the same time in the UK there were the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven cases:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guildford_Four_and_Maguire_Seve...


Well, probably not all that rare in the US, for example, due to the abuse of the plea bargain system.


That's the weirdest thing about US police series.

When I was younger, I never really believed that sort of thing actually happens for real, just thought it was an over-used fictional "cleverness" trope. I mean it's so obvious this is going to lead to abuse and false confessions if actually used for real-life confessions, I figured it had to, because in a TV-series you can assume that the police are the smart/good guys so they could safely use this clever (if somewhat unfair) trick to get the (obvious) bad guys.

As I got older, and perhaps as the themes in TV series got a little more complex, I started wondering sometimes, how are these even the good guys? For all they know they are now convicting an innocent man or woman, by pressuring them into confessing to a crime with the only leverage being "an offer they can't refuse" (a much larger sentence).


For a truly amazing look into how false confessions occur -- told from the point of view of an officer who inadvertently extracted one, and took over a decade to recognise his error -- act one of this This American Life episode is a must-listen:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/507/c...


Is this to showcase the article style? It reminds me of the snowy thing the New York Times did a few months ago, but with added parallax effects


This form of presentation (a specific layout for a single longform article) got really popular recently. That "snowy thing NYT did" happened a few years ago, if I recall correctly, and indeed, it might be considered the trend starter.

Personally, I'm very often impressed by work of theverge.com/polygon.com in this regard. Here's just one example: http://www.polygon.com/a/xbox-one-review They perfectly handle the toughest thing, which is the balance between flashiness and readability.

As for the BBC article: I don't like the font choices they've made. A serif (Georgia or Cambria) for body content and sans-serif for distinctions would work better, IMHO.


Yeah, and aside from the font I also felt that the transitions were a bit too abrupt, like they just stitched together a bunch of (in themselves pretty) pages.

The German newspaper 'Die Zeit' has been experimenting with this style as well, to the point of (as I understand it) starting Zeit Online as a completely separate department in Berlin.

For example (in German): http://www.zeit.de/kultur/karl-marx-allee/index.html#prolog http://www.zeit.de/sport/tour-de-france.html

Generally they're a little more subdued and their work, so far, is not as technologically impressive. But I might actually prefer that.


Thank you, that Xbox One article is indeed very awesome.



Hacker News is really being taken over by non hacker stuff. Interesting article, nice design, but don't really expect things like this here


I don't mind reading outstanding non-tech work on a news rating website for hackers once in a while.

If it disturbs you, think of it this way: it's a successfully executed exercise in data mining minds.


I thought it was posted for its design which is a bit OTT for me. I'm pleasantly surprised to find people talking about the content - IMHO thats quite healthy :)


I thought so as well(on the design) as the zooming and image changes are too distracting when reading the content


There's still a similar amount of hacker stuff in the listings, but the 'interesting tidbits' seem to have pushed out the business half of HN's mission. There's barely an article these days about capturing an clientelle or hiring practices or similar.


If you don't like it (I'm unsure from your wording), are you doing your part by going on new and upvoting the submissions that you do like?




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