More Surveillance, Less Internalization

The theft of mobile devices is a big business; a laptop is stolen every minute on average in the airports of the United States.  In an effort to prevent these thefts, an entire industry has emerged to protect mobile phones and laptop computers, such as Find My iPhone, Where’s My Droid, LookOut, Gadget Trak, and Laptop Cop.  Absolute Software, the biggest player in the laptop recovery industry, reports that it recovers more than 50 laptops every week.

The business of keeping mobile devices secure, which includes antivirus and network-security software, was a $676 million industry in 2010, according to a Forbes article [Kashmir Hill, “To Shame a Thief,” Forbes, 24 Oct 2011:46-51]. These protective devices include tracking devices with GPS units and webcam programs that can be activated remotely and show video of the thieves.  Some of these devices are free while others involve a small monthly fee.

One might hope that additional surveillance techniques would discourage theft, especially if everyone knows that mobile devices have tracking units embedded within them and a webcam that can be activated remotely.  These anti-theft devices represent a great leap forward in our efforts to deter crime.  Experience in the criminal justice system has taught us that the probability of detection and the likelihood of apprehension are important variables in deterring crime.  Unfortunately, many crimes go undetected and punishment is so remote and delayed that our criminal justice system is not an effective deterrent. Even more unfortunately, there have been occasional times when people have sued for invasion of privacy, claiming that they did not know the used item they purchased had been stolen.

Over the coming years it will be interesting to learn what counter measures thieves devise to circumvent the new security devices.  A lesson we have learned from computer viruses is that bright programmers have been very successful in detecting and destroying malicious viruses; but other programmers are bright enough to create new viruses that circumvent these programs.  This can almost be viewed as a game; “I’ll write a program to destroy your data and you see if you can catch me and prevent my program from succeeding; then I’ll try to outsmart your program by writing a new one.”  Lost in this exchange is the reality that this is not just a game; it is criminal behavior that needs to be condemned.

To the extent that we have to rely on detection and punishment to control these forms of theft our society suffers.  The quality of life in any society depends greatly on people voluntarily acting in the best interests of others. Society relies primarily on three very different restraints to regulate the behaviors of its citizens: (1) coercive restraints, (2), self-interest and (3) moral restraints.

Coercive restraints occur when those in authority establish rules and policies that regulate behavior.  Laws and rules of conduct are found everywhere: in communities, in organizations, and in families.  People usually dislike coercive restraints; rules feel restrictive and oppressive unless they are perceived as essential and fair.

The conditions that are necessary for these restraints to work effectively include surveillance to detect violations and punishment to enforce them.  The time required to enforce coercive restraints is rather minimal if the enforcement is swift and unilateral, such as parental discipline in the home. But, when due process procedures are established to guarantee fairness, as required within society, the enforcement can be very time consuming and costly especially when people want to challenge the policies or their enforcement.

Coercive restraints are expanding into many areas of human resource management, such as health-care, equal pay, affirmative action, and immigration. A problem with coercive restraints is that they do not help people internalize moral standards.  As a general rule, coercive restraints in any aspect of human resource management are undesirable and ought to be replaced whenever possible; they are inefficient, ineffective, and costly.

Self interest simply means that people make choices that contribute to their own health, wealth, and happiness.  In the discipline of organizational behavior, the best summary principle of the various motivation theories is that people do what they expect to be rewarded for doing, which is another way of saying that people pursue their own self-interest as they select between alternative products, activities, and behaviors.

Self-interest often has a negative connotation because it is associated with greed.  But, self-interest is not necessarily bad. When people behave unethically to get what they want through theft or fraud, it is appropriate to condemn this form of self-interest.  But a wholesale condemnation of self-interest is uninformed and ignores many of the basic realities of human behavior. As a general rule, effective societies are so designed that the greatest social good is achieved by people who are pursuing their own self-interest.

Moral restraints involve relying on people to govern their own behavior based on ethical principles of right and wrong.  Moral restraints are the ideal form of control; people who are guided by moral restraints govern their own behavior without being monitored and they act in the best interests of society. We see this in people who work in the helping professions, such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers; these professionals are expected to follow a code of ethics.  As a society we generally show great deference to professional people because we assume they will act in the best interests of both their patients and society.

As long as the theft of mobile devices persists, we will continue to develop more sophisticated ways to stop it.  Hopefully, we will never allow these thefts to be accepted as just a game; important issues of right and wrong are involved here.  Moral restraints have to be learned; they don’t just happen. Using coercive restraints may be necessary; but they are not the ideal goal.   $

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