The lies organisations tell themselves: the case of Rotherham Council

"Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsk...

“Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky”, Oil on canvas. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every man has some [truths] which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself.
~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Rotherham Borough Council has a problem. The public will know the most obvious problem. They failed to deal effectively with child sexual exploitation. What they will know less well is the culture that allowed these problems to go untreated. Few, if any, outside the council will know the institutional problems that remain. The problems that remain come from its corporate culture. The problem is the lie the organisation tells itself about itself. All organisations have blind spots for their own weaknesses. Good leaders look for these to either fix them or at least keep them from becoming a larger problem. An organisation cannot be perfect in all things, so it tries to get most things right. The most important thing to get right is the culture. Once you have a robust culture, then any weakness can be mitigated. Why? A robust culture is one where you avoid surprises and work through the problems together. Rotherham, though, does not realize that it continues to lie to itself as an organisation.
A culture that refuses to ask questions, is a culture waiting to collapse
As I wrote previously, Rotherham’s historical problems were the result of a toxic culture within the police and the council. Their culture kept them from understanding the size and the scale of the child sexual exploitation scandal. In the council, no one was prepared or able to ask the questions about the problem’s size, scale, and scope. When someone took a focused interest, we see fierce resistance from within the council and within the police. It is against that background that Rotherham Council promised to improve. The council promised to learn from the mistakes. They would avoid the culture that was unwilling and unable to ask the awkward questions and deal with the difficult subjects. The old council had suppressed questions and the new council would encourage professional curiosity. The Jay report showed that officers were discouraged from asking questions and thinking. When people did ask questions, they were either dismissed or suppressed. The questions that would force the organisations to “think” and take responsibility to understand the problem never emerged. Rotherham lacked a curiosity culture. Instead of professional curiosity, senior officers and Members focused on defending the council’s reputation. The senior officers modelled this behaviour and junior officers followed it.
A culture change was promised, but what has been delivered?
We were promised that the culture has changed. The old culture is gone and a new culture exists. This is the lie that Rotherham Council tells itself. In his response to the Jay report, the Chief Executive told the council that
“Professional curiosity is encouraged and this supports staff to raise issues and know they will be taken seriously.”
At the time, I believed that statement. I accepted it at face value. I wrote that it was damning that the Chief Executive had to reassure the public and councillors on this topic. I suggested that a wider curiosity culture needed to be developed. What I did not realize is that the claim was meaningless. The claim is not what it appears to mean. If you believe that Rotherham now encourages officers to ask questions, has a candid culture, and officers actively challenge and question assumptions you would be mistaken.
What evidence was there to back up their claim?
I made an FOIA request for the evidence behind the Chief Executive’s statement. A public statement should have evidence to support it. Otherwise, it is an empty assertion, a wish, and not a concrete reality. What I found was the council could not find a report, evidence, or document that demonstrates professional curiosity is encouraged. I was told that to find this information would exceed the fees limit. Even though the Chief Executive must have had a policy or a procedure in mind when he made the public statement, nothing was to hand. Instead, it would take over 18 hours of officer work to find the information.
Whistleblowing is not a symptom of professional curiosity
What the council was able to give, to demonstrate that professional curiosity is encouraged, was their whistle blower policy , a staff suggestion scheme, and a reporting system. The gap between professional curiosity that would ask questions of the council and challenge assumptions and what the council has described is vast. I would suggest that the exchange indicates the culture has not changed. It is another question whether it is changing, but based on the evidence provided, it does not appear to be changing. What is needed is a candid culture or a curiosity culture where people can raise questions without fear. If the council wants to learn from its past, it needs to create a process where bad news (critical news) can be reported as part of the normal business. If bad news is only seen with a Whistleblowing policy, then there is a problem. Basic questions of poor performance and problems within a service should not require a whistle blower. These should be something the organisation can discuss. A staff suggestion scheme is a small step in the right direction, but it is not a forum to discuss bad or critical news. Moreover, it does not indicate that bad news is welcomed. Where does the council discuss bad news? Rotherham has lied to itself if it believes it encourages professional curiosity with a staff suggestion scheme or a whistle blower policy.
The lies we tell ourselves are the worst
If Rotherham Council continues to lie to itself, how can it claim to have changed? It will change it has changed senior officers, but is it changing gits culture? Until it recognises that it does not yet encourage professional curiosity, how can it say it will deal effectively with the problems that emerge? It is time for Rotherham Council to tell itself the truth. Until it does, it will store up problems for the future.

What are some ways to develop professional curiosity?
If you organisation tends to lie to itself, you can take some steps to avoid these problems.
1. Develop a culture that encourages critical upwards communication. As I mentioned Denis Tourish’s work is good in this area.
2. Develop a candid culture, where people are willing and able to speak up because there are safe places to do this.
3. Encourage staff curiosity by making the full extended management team, not just one service, responsible for the issue. When many people see they have a stake in the issue, they can offer solutions and insights without the bias of those in the service
4. Accept that without bad news there is no chance to improve. If your service or your organisation is always reporting green key performance indicators then it is not challenging itself. The danger is that the service or the organisation is too focused on its reputation and not on the outcomes it is delivering. If it is not challenging itself, it will never deliver the promised results. Instead, it will make excuses.

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Is an organisation corrupt or just ill?

United Nations World Health Organisation logo

United Nations World Health Organisation logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we hear about a corrupt organisation we often are surprised and outraged. What we fail to consider is that all organisations are never completely healthy. They are all ill to some extent. They will have practices that are dubious, decisions that are suspect, and staff that are problematic. Leaders decide how much toxicity can be tolerated before it becomes a problem.[1] The leader has to manage the organisation’s health. When the organisation becomes unwell, “rogue employees” emerge or “rotten apples” start to appear, the leader needs to act. As the organisation’s most visible symbol, the leader has the largest role in managing its health.[2] When organisations become unwell, though, it is not enough to look at the top. We have to look inside the organisation.

What are signs of an organisation that has become ill?

The symptoms can vary. In some cases, it can be a decline in profits or productivity. In the public sector sickness absence rates are a good measure. When staff are physically ill, especially stress related illnesses; the organisation is likely to be ill. Many organisations focus on the employee and ignore the way the organisation can make the employees ill. Such an approach only deals with the problem’s symptoms. The employees may be stressed because responsibility and accountability are not connected. The tasks they perform may not be linked to the outcomes the organisation claims to deliver.[3] Also there can be a gap between what the organisation tells the public or does in public and what happens inside it.[4]

To avoid illnesses, listen to the street.

Inside each organisation, people tell stories. These stories will indicate the health of the organisation’s culture. The middle managers tell stories to translate the corporate strategy into frontline practice.[5] How they tell those stories will create or cure an organisational illness. If middle managers are unwilling or unable to tell senior managers about frontline constraints, it creates a problem. In the same way, if they tell staff to accept toxic behaviour by another employee, it discourages people from raising issues. These stores are important and senior managers need to listen to them.

What stories are do you tell each other at work?

The stories we tell each other at work about work senior managers need to understand the stories that they tell about the organisation because that sets the tone.[6] If a senior manager tells their junior direct reports that they were reamed out for a misplaced comma or that they were raked over the coals for bad press, it will tell the junior employees and managers something about the company. The stories give them their cues and set the culture or expectations. The frontline staff will take their cues from that behaviour and those stories. The same process works the other way. If junior employees are telling stories about a problem, then senior managers need to listen.

What is compromising your organisation’s immune system?

For an organisation to become ill, its immune system must be compromised either its culture or its structure. If the organisational structure is compromised, then corruption can take root and then flourish. If the board of directors becomes blinded by the profits and success, they will begin to overlook problems and fail to ask searching questions. Why ask questions about something that is making you rich and appears to be working? The Board needs to remain vigilant about whether they are being denied information that would allow them to curtail the excess. In this area, transparency and accountability can help. However, there needs to be more than transparency. There has to be a will to act on what is seen. When organisational checks are undermined (over time) the organisation starts to weaken, become vulnerable to illness.

Are you seeking out people who know what is going wrong?

There are people who know what is going wrong. It is these people that the leader needs to find and listen to or have his trusted subordinates listen to so that they can keep their ear on the street.[7] If they are not ready to listen to those who are making uncomfortable points, what kind of leadership does that suggest? This is more than creating critical upwards communication. A formal system is important, but the informal systems set the tone. No organisation, no matter how small, is completely transparent to itself. However, it has to find a way to confront uncomfortable truths from time to time.

To understand the illness, ask why people are leaving

Just as doctors will check a patient’s vital signs and run tests, senior managers need to do the same. They need to consider who they have hired and why. Do they know why people are coming to work at the organisation? If the new hires have a different set of expectations than the internal culture, the senior managers need to understand why that gap exists. Another area to consider is to look at exit interviews. Why are staff leaving? An organisation will become ill if good people are leaving and it cannot attract good people. To put it directly, if senior managers do not know why people are arriving or why they are leaving, how can they understand the organisation’s health?


For the public, it is important to look beyond an organisation’s surface. If we only criticise an organisation as “corrupt” we fail to understand the source of that corruption. If we want to reform the organisation, then we need to understand what makes it ill. Once we understand what makes it ill, we can help it get better.

[1] I do not mean criminality or behaviour that threatens the staff or the public. I mean the underlying problems or issues that emerge in an organisation when personalities intersect with opportunities that cause problems such as low level harassment, bullying, intimidation, and negativity.


[3] This can help explain the highest stress jobs include teachers and journalists.




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How work can compromise our ethics

Reworked (auto-optimized by gThumb) version of...

Reworked (auto-optimized by gThumb) version of Image:Stamp_Hannah_Arendt.jpg by Saibo ( Δ ) Original-Description: (Uploaded by User:Prolineserver) —- (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we enter the work place, we are never warned that the work can deform us ethically. We hear about accidents, sexual harassment, or even fraud, but how many of us are warned about the way that work can deform us ethically? The question is not an idle one. We find a scandal such as the Rotherham Council where people made ethically dubious decisions to defend the council or to protect themselves. They did what the system asked, without questioning the scale or scope of the problem. Despite critical external reports telling them of the problems, senior managers never investigated the scale or scope of the problem. The scandal continued for over 10 years, which indicates that unethical behaviour had become embedded. New employees were likely initiated into that culture, which helped to continue even as they worked on the problem’s symptoms. Such a scandal, though, is not isolated or new. In the past 20 years major firms such as EnronWorldComTyco, and Lehman Brothers, failed because of unethical and criminal behaviour.[1]

It takes time for an organisation to become unethical.

In each case, the unethical behaviour did not happen in one instance or overnight. It happened over a number of years and through a series of decisions. Rotherham council became ethically blind to the problems in the council and in the community. I have argued elsewhere, invoking Hannah Arendt’s argument, that the organisation and its employees stopped thinking.[2] What we see in each organisation is that the unethical behaviour became a learned behaviour where staff stop thinking about the larger ethical questions. They accept it as part of the culture. The people involved thought they were doing what was best for the company or for themselves and therefore for the company. They made the system work and delivered profits or organisational goals. Yet, at some point they began to filter their ethical decisions by the company’s best interest. They began to surrender their ethical responsibility to the organisation. How did this happen?

How does the work deform us?

We enter work as good people who want to act ethically. We want to treat others as we are treated and have others treat us we treat them. We believe our behaviour has to live up to a standard such as the company’s policies as well as the law. In time, though, our ethical standards become eroded. The change does not happen instantly or even in a short time. Instead, it is a constant and steady drip of ethically dubious decisions. Soon, we do not treat people as we expect to be treated. Instead, we remove ourselves from the ethical process and use the organisation as an ethical proxy. The organisation takes responsibility and we become passive actors. As Arendt pointed out in her book on Eichmann, a bureaucracy dehumanizes people. They become another cog in the machine. The organisation decides and we are just doing what is asked. In the process, the individual avoids ethical responsibility and ethically dubious decisions become easier to make.

Is compliance getting in the way of making money or getting the job done?

You may wish to hold ethical standards, but in time, they get in the way. In particular, if your senior managers or the corporation want to make a profit, they want to get on with the work, and compliance (following an ethical standard) can get in the way. Even if you are not a compliance officer, the senior managers will want you to say yes to something that if it is not illegal is at least ethically dubious.[3] We slowly learn to be unethical. We become initiated into the culture–the “way things work around here”.[4] For people who are self-aware, they may be able to see the path by which they were seduced or encouraged to become unethical. However, most people will conform because there is little reward for speaking up or speaking out.[5] Recent research suggests that honesty appears to be punished according to MBA graduates. In other words, higher ethical standards seem to lead to lower earnings.

Single loop learning can lead to unethical behaviour

You may find that your managers want to impress their superiors by “getting things done”. They will want to find ways to solve the problem as it appears to the superiors. They do not want to know why something went wrong. They just want the problem fixed. This behaviour is often called single loop learning. Double loop learning occurs when the organisation not only solve the presenting problem but seek to understand its causes so as to prevent them. When such an attitude sets in, junior staff solve the problem that presents itself. They do not ask why the problem occurred. They learn to avoid bringing more problems by asking why the problem occurred in the first place. The junior staff then realize to discuss the source of a problem, means to give bad news.[6] We can see how senior managers can encourage this by saying something like “If the regulator finds out, we can say, “It was a mistake”, and I will take one for the company”. Even when the regulator does arrive, if they ever arrive, they will only be provided with the minimum information and the organisation may even omit evidence and avoid providing anything unless specifically and unambiguously requested.[7] Unethical organisations will likely see fines or regulatory action as “The cost of doing business”. When unethical behaviour becomes the cost of doing business you know you have a problem. The company (and senior managers) now accept noncompliance as normal behaviour.

Do we ever realize when we have become ethically compromised?

At what point do we realize the change that begins to disfigure our integrity and corrupt our organisation? We see with Eichmann, an extreme example, that he never thought about the question. He has stopped thinking as he was conditioned by the political regime. Some employees do think about it and they leave. Others might stay to try and change things. Some will stay and suffer stress and illnesses as they try to reconcile their internal ethical standards against the toxic or morally ambiguous work culture. The answer, though, is not to become a whistleblower. Whistleblowing is a different issue because it is about a specific incident rather than a culture. Instead, the focus here is about the daily decisions that shape and potentially deforms our integrity to fit the organisation’s culture. The choices are rarely obviously illegal and usually show an ambiguous ethical issue.

Are you flexible? Are you an effective team?

One way to understand this change is to look for situations where your integrity is challenged. You might face statements or scenarios like the following.

“You need to be flexible.” You may find that people who are flexible in finding solutions for the company are praised. If you hold an ethical line, you are told that is inflexible and the company prides itself on a “can do” spirit rather than a “can’t” spirit.

You are holding up the decision. You may be told that you have lost a sale or kept a project from working because you insisted on the ethical standards.

You are regularly bypassed to find someone who is less ethical. Senior managers might go to your line manager to “encourage” your cooperation or simply bypass you.

Truth in jest is another scenario. A senior manager will jokingly mention something if it is not illegal it is definitely unethically or immoral. When challenged, or they find the audience unresponsive, they will say they were joking about doing it.

“If we could only make these files disappear we would not have to deal with this claim. I am joking; of course, I did not mean that we would really get rid of the files.”[8]

What are we to do?

As a new employee, you are most likely to notice ethically dubious behaviours. In your induction, you will be told about the law or other technical compliance issues. However, this is not enough. Organisations need to train employees to be ethical. The goal has to be more than awareness because employees need to understand the psychological pressures that can shape decisions. Successful training requires an ethical framework that encourages ethical behaviour. What is also required is a mechanism to report unethical behaviour so it can be addressed. The following indicate if such a framework exists.

  1. Ethical standards are publicized.
  2. Employees are trained to be ethical
  3. Ethical behaviour is modelled by senior managers.
  4. Unethical behaviour is addressed immediately.[9]


What the Rotherham scandal and others show is that unethical behaviour is usually a learned behaviour. As a learned behaviour, unethical behaviour can be avoided or unlearned. This means is that it can be changed if people and corporations are willing to change. Does your company offer training in how to be ethical? Perhaps it might be time to start before it is too late for you and the company.

[1] As in the case of Enron, there is a big difference between unethical behaviour and criminal behaviour. There is no law against unethical behaviour. There is a law against fraud, but that requires the court to prove the intent to commit the fraud, which is difficult to do. (See  One has to note that Arthur Andersen was vindicated when the Supreme Court overturned their conviction. However, it was too late as the company had been bankrupted and disappeared several years earlier.) However, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act does provide a possible remedy as it holds the CEO and the CFO responsible for the financial statements, which creates a higher level of accountability than existed previously.

[2] Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil 1963 ( )

[3] The demands will rarely be as explicit as the political realm where the government has the electoral mandate to shape the public interest. There you may find leaders who make demands that can be seen as the rule of three refusals. You may refuse because you believe it illegal or it is a matter of principle but at some point, your manager explains that we do not want you to tell us that it cannot be done but show how it can be done within the law or by bending the law and we will work out the risks.

[4] The phrase is one definition of a corporate culture. The overall culture may appear ethical but there may be micro-cultures, such as within a team, a service, or a department that are unethical. However, unethical behaviour is not simply a rogue employee; it is a context that enables unethical behaviour to flourish.

[5] To counter this, an organisation needs to encourage a “candid culture” where such issues can be raised and discussed.  This is related to an internal communications system that encourages critical upward communication. See the work by Dennis Tourish.

[6] For a classic account of the way that single loop learning encourages unethical behaviour consider the example from Chris Aygris Double Loop Learning in Organizations Harvard Business Review (Accessed 14 September 2014)

[7] The company will make a show of cooperation even as it withholds information and refuses to comply. An immediate example of this is the way that News of the World consistently claimed that they were cooperating fully with the police investigations when they stonewalled the police investigation at every stage. (see for example Dial M for Murdoch p.175-176)

[8] What is depressingly common in these scandals it the amount of files and records destroyed to avoid detection. Enron and Arthur Anderson shredded thousands of documents. Rotherham Council destroyed files of previous investigations and reports that helped to indicate the scale and scope of the problem.

[9] For more on managing ethically consider these resources Compliance Strategists, When Good Employees do Bad Things,  (Accessed 10 September 2014) Managing with integrity. (accessed 9 August 2014)

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The Facebook experiment and the web’s ethical void

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Français : Logo de Facebook Tiếng Việt: Logo Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Facebook Experiment has upset many people.[1] In the experiment, which was conducted in 2012, Facebook manipulated the timelines of some of its users. They filled it with good or bad news to study its effect on the user’s mood. After the results of the experiment were published, some defended it with the argument that users had agreed to it in their terms and conditions. The experiment was legal because people consented to the terms and conditions.[2] A related question, though, was whether the experiment and Facebook’s behaviour was ethical.

Defend the company is the first priority.

Although people have focused on the experiment’s ethics, this blog focuses on the ethical content of terms and conditions and ethics of Facebook’s decision to manipulate some of its users. The issue is a salient one as Facebook is not alone in relying on terms and conditions to defend the legality and ethicality of how it treats customers. The terms and conditions are a legal document. Lawyers write them for a legal purpose. They explain the relationship between the company and the users. They show the company’s and the users legal rights and obligations. From the company’s perspective, the terms and conditions protect the company.[3] On the surface, this is understandable. Yet, we have to ask should this come at the price of ethical behaviour towards the service user? Is this suggesting an ethos that if it is legal it must be ethical? However, if we consider that the law is the lowest ethical common denominator within a community and is not the final or sole determinant of the common good, then such a view is problematic.

Imagine if the Constitution were based on Facebook’s terms and conditions.

What would society look like if it were based on Facebook’s terms and conditions? Although it is a speculative question, it reminds us that our lives are shaped increasingly by our digital experiences and expectations. In turn, those experiences shape our approach to ethics and, increasingly, politics. People see their relationship with the political community or the government as similar to, if not the same as, their relationship with web service providers. Despite the influence of the digital domain, the Facebook Experiment returns us to a fundamental problem. Is the legal order always an ethical order?

History repeats itself when the legal order is the ethical order.

The Facebook experiment and the ethos it reflects should remind us of a previous age. History has shown us a society that had a similar approach to law and ethics. The Weimar Republic in Germany was such an age. At that time, legal positivists like Hans Kelsen, who along with others, helped to justify and sustain the Nazi legal order by explaining that the law was without a normative content.[4] The content of the law did not determine its validity. In practice, this meant that any law was valid so long as the political authority within the state promulgated it. Even though we are demonstrably not in a political system similar to 1930s Germany, we find that the digital domain projects an ethos in which if it is legal it is ethical.

Terms and conditions may be legal, but are they ethical?

The issue we have to understand is the ethical content of the terms and conditions. To put the question directly, are terms and conditions written so that the company can take advantage of its client and customers? Such an approach may be legal, but is it ethical? As the Facebook Experiment revealed, this is a debatable question. The deeper question is why did the Facebook management team and its legal team fail to consider the ethical content of their terms and conditions and the ethical content of the experiment? Both may be legal, but they are clearly not ethical. To change the terms and conditions to include a reference to research and believe that this substitutes for informed consent suggest a gap between the ethical content and the legal content of their decisions and terms and conditions. It also suggests an ethical failure within the organisation. Yet, Facebook is not alone in this approach.

Facebook is no different from many other social media service providers. Their terms and conditions are similar to other companies. They meet legal requirements without an apparent concern for their ethical content. As long as they are legal, that is sufficient. If terms and conditions are written with this perspective, we have to consider if other decision are made this way. Do companies consider an ethical responsibility beyond the minimum of complying with the law or a legal obligation? Some might defend their approach to say that the basic ethical responsibility is simply compliance with the law. However, the law is the lowest moral or ethical order within a society.

The law is a society’s lowest moral order

The law is the lowest ethical framework within the society. It shows the basic agreement about a form of justice to sustain the decent political life within a community. The laws create the foundation of the common good. However, the common good is not the highest good simply. Instead, it is formed in response to, and guided by, an approach to a higher good as revealed by rational enquiry into the best way to live. Even though this higher good is unobtainable by a society, it is not beyond an individual’s or a corporation’s understanding. In other words, corporations and citizens can act in ways that are ethically superior to simply complying with the law. Here we see the tension for Facebook. Facebook have fallen short of the ethical responsibility that we would expect from another person. They did not consider whether they would harm someone. To put it broadly, they would have had to consider whether their behaviour was just.

In considering the question of justice, or whether Facebook’s behaviour was just, we see that the “experiment” reveals something darker about human nature in the digital domain than we care to consider in our technologically empowered world. As one observer noted, the people conducting the “experiment” did not see the people as themselves. On the surface, this appears decisive. If they had been willing to see the experiment’s subjects as themselves or their family and friends, they might have come to a better decision.[5] Here is a key failing of most ethical programmes. The ethical problems are usually seen as someone else’s problems that are easily dismissed because “we do not know” these people.[6] If the people designing the experiment were subjected to it, they may have changed their view. Such a view, though, is potentially problematic.

If we test of an ethical decision by asking whether it would be applied to your family, we make an assumption. We assume that the person who makes that decision will look out for the welfare of others. Such an approach, while interesting, would not ensure that the decision was ethical. We know that the Nazis or the Bolsheviks were quite willing to apply their brutality to their own families.[7] They would, and did, execute their own family because that is what was legal within their society. In other words, the Party or the Fuhrer required it. The political authority in their society said it was legal and therefore ethical.[8] Leaving aside the ethical content of the Facebook Experiment, we have to consider whether there are any limits to manipulating or experimenting within the digital domain.

Does Facebook’s ethical emptiness reflect a deeper ethical problem within the digital domain?

The Facebook experiment awakens us to an ethical problem. The digital domain appears to have an ethical deficit. The deficit suggests that technologists lack robust ethical training. As one commentator noted, the Web needs a moral operating system. The access to information allows companies to control, manipulate, and influence service users and customers.[9] This concern is not new. Philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, have worried about technology’s power to shape a person’s ethical perspective. Heidegger argued that the essence of technology creates a worldview that reduces man to a standing reserve. In this worldview, we are conditions to think about the world, and subsequently man, as objects to be harvested or used just as wheat or coal is harvested or mined as a resource. As a resource, man loses his ethical standing. Instead of a moral being with an intrinsic worth, man is reduced to a resource to be experimented on or consumed.[10] Even though the philosophical issues raised by Heidegger are beyond our scope here, we need to consider the ethical training of technologist and the constraints on companies given their power over the individual. How can we trust Facebook or any social media service provider to act ethically?

Has the Facebook experiment been the moment we left the digital Garden of Eden?

The experiment has woken many people up to a central problem for the digital domain—trust. The question that will be asked is “Why should we trust anything that Facebook or any internet service provider says about the willingness to protect and respect the user?” If the terms and conditions are our only protection and we find how they are written as a minimum legal compliance without ethical content to defend the organisation, then we face a challenge. How can a user be sure that they will be treated fairly or ethically? Facebook demonstrated that they are willing to manipulate its users unconditionally and without concern for their explicit informed consent or welfare. If, as it has been suggested, that all social media provider seeks to manipulate or harvest their users in some way, what does that say about our ethical life? Has this been an implicit desire within corporations and people which the digital domain has allowed to manifest itself? For some this may be considered the will to power. If we have to engage the social media world with that assumption, then we live in a problematic age. Leaving aside the technologically powerful, who can protect themselves and benefit from this ethically dubious behaviour, who will protect the vulnerable and the weak? Who will protect you if you cannot protect yourself? Such a situation suggests that we have returned to a digital state of nature in which the technologically strong (Facebook, Google, and hackers) do as they will and the technology weak (the rest of us) do as we must.[11] What can be done?

What can be done?

If the digital state of nature is to be avoided, digital businesses will need to demonstrate that they treat their customers and clients ethically. Those companies that can show they are acting ethically and will act ethically will have a comparative advantage. If a customer believes the terms and conditions are written to take advantage of them for the company’s profit, then they will seek other providers. To demonstrate their ethical behaviour, and regain trust, companies will need to be transparent about how they are using customer data and the ethical safeguards. In particular, are they making decisions about customers with an explicit concern for ethical behaviour? They can do this with a code of ethics, a training programme focused on ethical behaviour, and a compliance system that drives ethical behaviour. If the web-based economy cannot ensure trust and respect for the dignity of the human person, it may not be sustainable. If we cannot trust our social media companies, then we have a further question about the trust needed to sustain the digital economy. Without the trust that sustains intangible property rights, an advanced capitalistic economy becomes difficult to sustain.

The ethical dilemma is more than the digital domain.

From the Great Recession, we learned that firms within the financial industry have demonstrated unethical behaviour. The Governor of the Bank of England and the Head of the International Monetary Fund made public statements on the need for the industry to improve its ethical behaviour.[12] What we found in the financial crisis was that companies rarely, if ever, considered the ethical impact of their decisions. It would appear that ethics were the first victim in the pursuit of profits. However, the danger is actually greater in the digital domain. The lack of ethical behaviour is not about money, it is about reducing humans to a resource to be consumed, manipulated, and experimented upon without apparent limit. The approach may have been legal, but is it ethical? History has shown us what can happen when people are reduced to an administrative decision. We need to decide whether we want history to repeat itself or if we are willing to have an ethical digital domain. What the companies may find is that they have unleashed an ethical contagion in which they become subject to the same brutal logic that they are willing to apply to their customers.

[1] The Facebook experiment: “In January 2012, for one week, Facebook deliberately manipulated the News Feeds of nearly 700,000 of its users as part of an experiment. News Feed is a constantly updating list of stories from people and pages that you follow on Facebook, and includes status updates, photos, videos, links as well as app activity.” (Accessed 24 July 2014)

[2] Even though people pointed to references to research in the terms and conditions, these terms were added after the experiment was conducted. On the problematic use of terms and conditions to signal consent, consider that the Nuremberg Code that human experiments must be based on freely given and fully informed consent. (accessed 24 July 2014)

[3] An ex-Facebook employee who worked as a data scientist for the company suggested that the experiment would have been vetted by the legal team and the PR team and there was no internal review board for such decisions. (accessed 24 July 2014)

[4] One only need to consider Kelsen said quite infamously that a despotic order or a tyranny was still a legal order

It is altogether senseless to assert that no legal order exists in a despotism, but that the despot’s arbitrary will holds sway . . . after all, the despotically ruled state, too. represents some sort of ordering of human behavior. . . . This ordering is, precisely, the legal order. To deny it the character of law is only an instance of the naiveté or presumption of natural-right thinking. What is interpreted as arbitrariness is merely the autocrat’s legal ability to assume the power of making every decision . . . and to abolish or alter . . . previously established norms. . . . Such a condition is a legal one, even if felt to be disadvantageous. As a matter of fact, it also has its good points. This is shown quite clearly by the not at all unusual call for dictatorship in the modern stale ruled by law. [Emphasis added] quoted from Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History p.4 n.2 which is quoting Kelsen’s Algemeine Staatslehre (1925) found here: accessed 7 July 2014

[5] See Ethics for Technologists (and Facebook) in HBR blog Michael Schrage (Accessed 15 July 2014)

[6] See for example the ethical experiment in an MBA programme where students are asked what they would do if they were on the board of a pharmaceutical company and they found a drug killed 20 people a year. After a debate, they decided to export the drug and fight the FDA rather than withdraw the drug. When asked if they would want their doctor prescribing it, they all said no.

[7] The case of Otto Ohlendorf should raise concerns about measuring a decisions ethical content by whether you would apply it to your family. Ohlendorf was in charge of Einsatzgruppe D on the Eastern front a mobile extermination unit.

When he faced trial at Nuremberg he was asked the following question in different ways.

“I asked him now whether if he found his own flesh and blood within the Hitler Order in Russia, what would have been his judgment, would it have been moral to kill his own flesh and blood, or immoral.”

After a series of attempts to avoid answering it, he finally replied.

His response was “If this demand would have been made to me under the same prerequisites that is within the framework of an order, which is absolutely necessary militarily, then I would have executed that order.”

[8] The Bolsheviks willingly confessed to crimes against the party in the show trials of the 1930s. They believed in the legitimacy and necessity of their cause *even though* they knew the charges against them were false.

[9] This TED talk by Damon Horowitz suggests that technologists needs to improve their ethical training. The talk itself raises a troubling spectre. The audience reaction suggested that people are no longer trained to be moral. Instead, they seem to operate with a crude moral system. When that crude moral system is placed within a corporation with it’s a demand for profits and a dominant culture, in which the employee is encouraged to go along to get along, it is not surprising that unethical decisions occur. The problem is so pervasive and so present because it means that the political philosophical crisis of the West, in which it no longer believes in the founding principles regarding political philosophy enabling a moral life and a common good, are manifested explicitly within the digital domain. What has only been debated or discussed within philosophy departments is now everyday practice in the digital domain.

[10] See the recent essay by Mark Blitz Understanding Heidegger on Technology in The New Atlantis. (accessed 22 July 2014) In this essay Blitz reviews the recent publication of Heidegger’s other essays around his Question Concerning Technology.

[11] If such a digital state of nature exists, one has to ask why some activists want to constrain the state which acts as the only legal defender of the weak and the vulnerable. If the state is limited by its ability to monitor the web, because of increased encryption, and it is the only legal defender of the weak, as Facebook demonstrated its willingness to prey upon its serve users, who benefits? Hackers will demonstrate against the power of the state in the Web yet they never seem to be able to explain who they will turn to except the state when predators like Facebook emerge.

[12] See their speeches at the Inclusive Capitalism conference on 27 May 2014. Mark Carney explained that without ethics capitalism will disappear. (accessed 28 May 2014)  Christine Lagarde warned that to restore trust in the markets ethical norms needed to be strengthened. (accessed 28 May 2014)

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The myth of the transparent organisation.

Accountability vs. Responsibility

Accountability vs. Responsibility (Photo credit: shareski)

We will hear that transparency is good for organisations and organisations will even tout their transparency. In many cases, the organisations believe what they are doing is transparent. They publish information on a regular basis that describes decisions, financial positions, and future strategies. In this, transparency is a means to an end for the corporation as it appears to be a good corporate citizen. Here we see the beginning of the problem. The organisation wants to appear to be transparent. The appearance becomes the goal rather than the reality. This has two consequences one external and the other is internal.

Transparency becomes reputation management

We can see the external consequences very simply. In the external realm, the organisation sees transparency as an issue that affects its reputation. Transparency must be managed like its reputation. The goal is not to be transparent but to appear transparent. The transparency will be managed. The organisation will publish what best suits its interests and its reputation. Such an approach is not surprising. Human nature is such that we want others to see us as we see ourselves. We want to control how others view us. Transparency means that someone else can potentially see the organisation as it is rather than as it appears to be. Transparency in this sense can become a form of accountability. It is hard to be accountable. For an organisation that focuses on its reputation, any transparency, except that filtered and managed for appearance and reputation, will threaten it. The transparency will make the organisation accountable in a way that it cannot control and will be resisted.

Vertical and horizontal transparency and accountability

The organisation sees transparency as a barrier to what it wants to do. One way to avoid the barrier is to claim it is already accountable. The problem though is that accountability can mean two things. The public will want vertical accountability and the organisation will want horizontal accountability. The term vertical accountability refers to the audience that holds the organisation to account. The audience is either the employees or to the public. By contrast, horizontal accountability has a different audience. The audience is peers such as the board or the regulators. The organisation does not exist and hold power, either corporate or political, to be held to account in ways that they cannot manage. Externally the organisation wants to be seen for what it appears to be rather than what it is. This brings us to the internal consequences.

Transparency is difficult when you are opaque to yourself.

To manage its reputation, an organisation will become opaque to itself. The organisation will control what is said by staff to align with its reputation. The control is usually informal or cultural. Take for instance the public sector. Some public sector organisations publish their corporate management team minutes and transparency information. For some organisations they will publish more than the minimum because that is their culture. For others, they will publish the minimum and present it to suit their interests. If something is a sensitive topic, such as spending on consultants, the term consultants will be replaced with something less noticeable like professional services. The organisation considers itself transparent and accountable. Such a scenario may seem farfetched. Perhaps it is. Yet, it reflects a dysfunctional culture. The culture resists transparency. It may want to be praised for being open and transparent, but it resists accountability. Where this occurs, we often see a perception gap between senior managers, middle managers, and junior employees that creates perverse outcomes.

The perception gap creates perverse incentives.

The perception gap that creates perverse outcomes occurs in the following way. Senior manages agree a plan to deliver a widget in 10 days. They want to beat the target of 20 days. They tell the middle managers this without consulting them. They are consulted by being told the plan. The senior managers expect them to do as they are told. If the widget will be delivered in 10 days, then it must be delivered in 10 days. It is for the middle manager to work out the details. The middle manager, in turn, then has to deliver the 10 days target against their other work. To meet the target, frontline team do perverse things.  They send a lower quality good or they massage the figures. They will count delivery as the day shipped. The senior managers are pleased because they see the 10 day target being met. The frontline staffs become disillusioned because they see the senior managers are out of touch. The middle managers lose respect because they cannot convince the senior managers the target is wrong and they allow perverse outcomes so that they can show they can meet the targets.

Internal culture works to maintain appearances

The internal problem comes when the gap between appearance and reality becomes too great to manage. The desire to manage the external reputation, rather than let it reflect the reality, infects the internal culture. The same perception-perversion gap will occur. The issue is not the gap between appearance and reality but the size of that gap. As the gap increases the internal culture becomes dysfunctional. In an extreme form, we can see this in the failure of Enron where the image of the executive was maintained until it could not be maintained anymore and the market was able to see the company for the shell that it was. We may consider these aberrations, yet, the underlying issue is that companies resist transparency that will show this gap and they are trained to resist it.

Do what is best for the company hides the problems

In particular the training to resist the transparency can be seen in things like single loop learning or blame avoidance. When a problem arises, the managers will act quickly to solve the problem. If the problem persists, and threatens the appearance, “we are a good company at x”, then the manager faces a choice. They have to explain a problem that threatens to undermine the reputation, the appearance, which the organisation is defending. Most employees want to be good employees and do what is good for the company. As a result, they may report the problem in such a way as to avoid blame without explaining that the reputation is wrong. In this regard, they do what is best for the company, or rather the senior managers, protect or support the reputation, rather than explaining the reality. If a junior officer tries to do the right thing and describe the reality, their senior managers may be embarrassed or seek to avoid blame by claiming that the junior officer “does not have all the details or the wider perspective on the issue”. When this occurs, the junior employee sees that it is better to deliver only so much transparency that will be accepted by the senior managers.

Transparency if I am at risk, contain the crisis if the company is at risk

The culture changes so that the employees embrace transparency that affects them or harms them. If it affects the organisation, the goal is to “contain” the crisis and limit transparency. The organisation’s reputation becomes the overriding goal for employee. For organisations, as for governments, silence protects them. They will resist anything that breaks that silence especially if they cannot manage it. The organisations and its executives want transparency that they can manage. They want to decide how they are seen. The goal is to keep others from knowing the organisation as it is rather than as it appears. The transparent organisation while well intentioned becomes a practice in reputation management rather than a change in culture or behaviour.

What is to be done to avoid the problem?

First, the organisation needs to work at being transparent to itself. This means it must have good internal communication so that bad news or news that contradicts the public reputation can be reported upwards.

Second, the organisation must align its reputation with its reality. If it is constantly seeking awards, the issue is whether it is in the business of winning awards or delivering a superior product. The first is about reputation management the second is about excellence.

Third, the organisations need to focus on the outcomes that are best for the company not just for senior managers. This is often the hardest part as senior managers rarely like to become powerful to be held to account.


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How to write transparent investigation reports

Students photographing evidence in SUNY Canton...

Students photographing evidence in SUNY Canton’s Criminal Investigation program (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the age of Freedom of Information, public sector organisations, including the police, have to be prepared to respond to FOI requests for how they conduct investigations.  For some organisations and some situations, the investigation report is made public such as in a public inquiry.[1] In many cases, the request will relate to an issue of public interest, but in other cases, such as internal disciplinary issues, the case will not attract the public interest. In those cases, the FOIA will be less likely to apply because personal data (s.40 (2) in the UK, will limit the personal data that can be disclosed. However, in cases where the public interest is high, the organisation may have to disclose some if not most its investigation report either under FOIA or as part of another regulatory requirement such as an Ombudsman investigation.[2] With that requirement in mind, it is a good idea to develop an investigation procedure and guidance that will reflect the need for transparency after the investigation is completed. The benefits are twofold. First, you are likely to have a more robust investigation. Second you are likely to be ready to be more transparent with your own organisation and, most importantly should the demand arise, to the public or regulator.

If the organisation is not prepared for FOIA, the way it conducts an investigation can appear to be a cover-up because they fail to follow these 8 steps. In all cases, a balance must be struck between confidentiality, privacy, and the public interest. However, even if the investigation is not to be made public, the steps are important for the organisation to be transparent to itself within the legal confines of confidentiality.

First, draw up clear terms of reference for the investigation. You want the people doing the investigation and those being investigated, or those involved in the investigation, to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you are doing it. The same would be for a criminal investigation where the subject has to know the crime they are being charged with and what they are under investigation for having done. If you are investigating something by the organisation because of a public complaint, you will need to let the complainant know the terms of reference in principle, even if you cannot provide them all the details in case that may prejudice the investigation. If you don’t provide the terms of reference or the nature of the investigation, especially on a public complaint, you may create an expectation gap between what they think you are investigating and what you are investigating.

After the investigation is completed, or as part of the final report, the terms of reference should be shared with all people involved, with the FOIA caveats regarding confidentiality and prejudice to subsequent or ongoing investigations. In complaints about a service, rather than an individual, you are likely to have the terms of reference implicit in the complaint. If they are not, then it is important to let the complainant know what you are investigating. This is the first step to avoid the appearance of a cover-up. If the organisation does not keep a copy of the terms of reference or never has terms of reference, it can give the appearance of a less than robust approach to investigations. If the investigation is a simple complaint, then the complaint itself will be the terms of reference. In smaller organisations or on basic investigations, this will be the case. Anything involving more than two people will likely need a terms of reference to know what is being investigated and why as well as explaining the priority of interviews to the investigator. All of this is bearing in mind the critical point that during any investigation, the disclosure of information relating to the investigation is on a need to know.

Second, set up a list of questions, themes, or issues that will be explored to express the terms of reference.  The questions should be enough to set the question map rather than a definitive list. The themes or issues that need to be covered could be disclosed if the exact questions may reveal sources and methods that would prejudice an ongoing investigation or prejudice future investigations. The caveats here is if the investigation takes a number of iterations so that questions asked at the first round can influence the second round. As a mentor of mine once said “Questions breed questions”. As questions always lead to more questions so that one cannot determine all the possible issues before they emerge. At the same time, one would have to avoid disclosing any personal data, such as names of people to be interviewed or who has been interviewed if it would prejudice the interview. If a copy cannot be shared because interviews are still being conducted, they should be shared as soon as the interviews are completed and it is not prejudicial to an investigation. In some cases, such as a disciplinary or tribunal the questions may be shared as part of the tribunal process. If the questions are not transparent after the event, it can give the appearance that questions are already determined and the outcome is decided. In other words, you are only asking for what you expect to find. .

After the investigation, the questions may need to be disclosed as part of an FOIA request because the nature of the investigation, especially one in the public interest, would need to be shown to be robust. In a small investigation, or ones that relate to investigations that do not attract a high degree of public interest, the questions or issues can be included in the terms of reference.

Even though the questions can be included in the terms of reference, it is best that they are drawn up separately and informed by the terms of references rather than limited to the terms of reference. The caveat here is if the issue is a minor or small investigation.

Third, set up a timetable when the interview is scheduled to be completed. This does not have to be set out in stone, but it should be specific enough so that that the people know the overall timetable for the investigation. No one likes to be involved in an open ended investigation. Smaller investigations can have this set out clearly as the issue may be easy to resolve. If the organisation cannot give a schedule of when the investigation is likely to be completed, it is a sure sign it cannot plan and it would look like a cover up or a pre-determined outcome is in place. The timeline will help to keep the complainant informed and you can then update them at certain points or report that there is nothing to report if that is the case. This is especially important in complaints about a service.

Fourth, keep a list of the people interviewed and when they were interviewed. If the organisation cannot provide this list, after the investigation as required, it shows that it is not organised nor that the investigation is well structured. Again, the issue here is after the report or the investigation is completed as the FOIA request may ask to demonstrate that the appropriate people were interviewed. If an incident or a complaint involved an officer and they were not interviewed or relevant people were not interviewed, this could prejudice the investigation. If the investigation is not to be made public, the organisation still needs to know for its own transparency and accountability how the investigation was conducted and who was interviewed.

Fifth, include something from the interviews within the report. Otherwise it will appear that the report has not covered all the questions or involved the responses from all the people interviewed. If people are interviewed and they are not included in the final investigation report, that will need to be explained in the report. In some cases it may not be practical or wise to include the names of everyone interviewed especially if there are confidential sources. The issue here is the final report would need to tell the organisation what was found and what needs to be done.

After the investigation, a FOIA request may still require the organisation to withhold some of the report as it relates to personal data or confidential information. If the organisation is interviewing people but does not have a need to include them in the final report, there may be an appearance of a cover up or at a minimum poor organisation. This can be overcome by having a list that is used for the organisation and then redacted for the purpose of disclosure in the public domain.

Sixth, the investigation report should guide the reader from the terms of reference to the recommendations. The reader should be able to follow from the report’s terms of reference through the questions to the conclusions and on to the recommendations. A well written report, leads the reader step by step through this process. If the report does not follow the terms of reference or the recommendation does not fit the questions, then the report will raise more questions than it answers. Thus, a well structured report that is clear will demonstrate better transparency to the organisation and to the public.

Seventh, if the report has recommendations, there should be a follow up action plan that shows how those recommendations are to be addressed. For any investigation report there should be a second report outlining the action plan for the recommendations from the investigation. If this does not exist, the complainant will not be certain you are going to solve the problems that were identified. At the same time, they and others have no way to check that you have done what you have recommended or explained why you could not do what was recommended.

In a smaller investigation, this will not be needed because the investigations recommendations are likely to be the solution to the problem. In a larger organisation or on an issue involving many people, there should be a clear action plan that the organisation can monitor to make sure that it has completed what it promised to do.

Eighth, if at all possible share all of the above or most of the above with the person who made the complaint or raised the issue. At a bare minimum, this will help to avoid the appearance of a cover-up and it will demonstrate you have done what the complainant asked. In a basic customer complaint, you need to tell them what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what you have done to fix it. The complainant may not need to see all the interviews and the investigation, even though the organisation may need that for its own learning.

In more complex cases, if someone is a victim of a crime it would be strange not to tell the victim what the organisation found out and what it will do to make it right. This does not mean they receive the whole report or special access, but that it is best to let the victims know about the outcomes.  For example, once the disciplinary hearings are finished and the investigation report is no longer as confidential as the public interest has changed, then the organisation should consider disclosing the full report or as much as can be disclosed under the appropriate legislation. Again, this is driven by the public interest in the issue or the investigation. At a minimum, the organisation should be prepared to be transparent to the public and to itself.

Internally, the organisation needs to have a process to learn from each investigation with a learning outcomes circulated to all staff, if required, and more sensitive or more detailed information to those with a need to know. For example, if an organisation investigates a fraud case it will publicise that success without great detail for the public or general staff. However, it will likely circulate specific control improvements to those employees that have a need to know about the fraud and its consequences. The purpose of the investigation is to find the problem, fix it or assign blame if required for further criminal action; it should not be to avoid scrutiny or transparency. When the organisation shares information to learn from the investigation, it must still follow the duty of confidence to protect personal data from inappropriate or unauthorized disclosure.

Even if you do not end up sharing the information for legal reasons, you should share it internally so that the organisation can learn from the issue. In all cases a balance must be struck so that you do not disclose so much that you kill the patient but enough that the public, if a public interest issue, and the organisation learn from the incident.

The eight steps might sound like common sense, but many public sector organisations do not prepare their investigations for transparency. As a result, they store up problems because they are neither transparent to themselves or to the public. If they are unprepared for transparency, because they are opaque to themselves, their investigations can appear, even though it is unintended, to be a cover-up because they have not done these steps or have not prepared themselves with the possibility that they would have to disclose information relating to the investigation and its outcome. If an organisation does not follow these steps it will be a good indication that they are not a learning organisation. Most, if not all, of the points will be followed by organisations that want to learn from the complaint or the issue. If it is a small issue or complaint, most of the eight items will be covered by good customer service. In more complex cases, such as police or criminal investigations, the balance needs to be struck because the public interest is strong to maintain the integrity of the investigative process while demonstrating, if only to the regulator, that a robust investigation process works to satisfy the public interest in the process. At a minimum, the eight steps will at least ensure the organisation is transparent to itself even if it is not transparent to anyone else.

I would like to thank Donna Boehme of the Compliance Strategists for comments on an earlier version of this post published as 8 Steps to ensure your investigation does not appear to be a coverup. I wish to thank her for her time and her comments. They improved the post by pointing out some errors and omissions. Any remaining mistakes are my own. 

Compliance Strategists are a leading consulting firm based in the metropolitan New York area, specializing exclusively in compliance, ethics, risk and governance practice.


[1] See for example Serious Case Reviews, when a child dies or a serious outcome occurs in a safeguarding situation, have to be published. They are published with some personal data removed and confidentiality protected as required. However, the point is that they are now published whereas they were not available to the public previously.

On the issue of public inquires and royal commissions in the UK see the following as well as historical examples On the general issues of a public inquiry see

[2] See how the UK local government ombudsman approaches investigations.


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IAPP Privacy and Freedom: A review by Lawrence Serewicz (@lldzne)

lawrence serewicz:

Here is my review of Alan Westin’s book Privacy and Freedom. I would welcome your views on the review.
I would be particularly interested in what you think of the following thesis. The privacy professionals have failed to deliver on the promise of privacy as corporations show a disregard for privacy. The work of Westin and others, while well intentions, has failed to deter the demand for personal data as a commodity and shows the weakness of the privacy compliance work.

The book remains important which is why I think the questions need to be explored.


Originally posted on Blog Now:

The IAPP has republished Alan Westin’s best-known book, Privacy and Freedom, which was first published in 1967. Despite its age, the new version, it is the same text with several introductory essays, provides context for a reader coming to it for the first time. The introductory essays, which include one by Westin on how he viewed his work and its impact, provide a useful context for the author, the book and its relevance.


Although the introductory essays offer an insight into the book’s impact and the author’s contribution to privacy professional field, a critical essay would have been welcome because the privacy landscape has changed dramatically. The change is more than technological because it includes the change in cultural attitudes to privacy. The cultural and technological changes have undermined his definition.

For most readers, Westin and his book are best known for providing a robust definition of privacy. His book…

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