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Spying, Privacy and Trust in Relationships: Does the Current Approach Manifest Our Values?

Tue, November 05, 2013 2:56 PM | Robert Hurley (Administrator)

While no doubt Edward Snowden’s Guardian leaks have caused embarrassment and damage, it also seems very clear that he has generated some vitally important conversations that would not have happened had he not turned “double agent.” Some of this conversation helps us understand trust better.


Total trust means being willing to make oneself vulnerable to the actions of another and to eschew any monitoring or control over that other person. I trust you to do the right thing, even though I cannot control or monitor you. This level of trust is rare indeed, and after September 11th it is even more rare in the United States. Why? Terrorists took advantage of the open society in the US and plotted deadly attacks that killed thousands. What’s more, the inadequacies of the US intelligence system failed to catch warning signs of suspicious actors taking flying lessons in the US. On September 11th, the trust that the American people had in its government to keep them safe was damaged. Now, en route to repairing that trust, other trust relations have been damaged – the Iraq weapons of mass destruction narrative spun by Cheney and others proved incorrect and serving of their interests (leading to questions of deliberate deception).  Secret prisons, Abu Ghraib, and now spying on world leaders.


Trust relations are both simple and complex. Simple in the following sense – treat everyone the way you would want to be treated and you’re likely to earn trust. But what if you were the CEO of a bank, an oil company or a country? Could you follow that advice and be a trustworthy leader? Of course not. Why? Because as a steward you have a responsibility for risk management and if you were open and trusting with everyone, including bad people or people whose interests conflict with yours, your decision to trust would do damage to you and those you lead.


That puts you in the real world of managing trust relations. You will have some very high-trust relationships and others that are low-trust, for good reason. If you trust no one, you will have a small life and a small company. If you trust everyone, you will be burned. If we learn how to make good trust decisions, place trust in the right people, and manifest trustworthiness with those people, we will be safer and more prosperous.


But as a CEO dealing with real world trust relations, what this means is that you must locate distrust where it is warranted to manage your risk. You must have certain monitoring routines and controls in place to avoid disaster. You cannot trust everyone and manage risk well. In fact, if done correctly and in proportion, controls become a platform from which trust with certain stakeholders can blossom. For example, I trust my airline because they have a process in place to hire trustworthy pilots and they do not leave it to the pilots' discretion on when to be trained. Process done poorly erodes trust all around – with friends and enemies alike. I distrust my bank because their processes led to my being charged hidden fees and failed to detect their manipulation of LIBOR rates.  If the US monitoring of communication detects threats to us and our friends without unreasonably infringing on others’ rights, then it can be trust-enabling. If it does not detect threats and alienates our friends, it disables trust and increases our risks long term.


Maybe the US government and NSA have gone overboard in correcting intelligence inadequacies and managing risk, and maybe they have not. But the real question is: does our risk management approach have integrity? Can we be proud of our actions and defend them to those around the world that admire our nation as a force for good? To answer this we need to ask ourselves what freedoms we are willing to give up to have more control over risk. We must also examine how we want the government to relate to its own citizens and to our friends around the world to build and sustain their trust. Trust got much more complicated after September 11th. Maybe we need to step away from the trauma of that infamous day and revisit some of these fundamental questions. Unfortunately, our government officials, whose own trust ratings are lower than at any time in history, are too busy posturing and blaming to be of much help here. Perhaps it’s time that citizens and other thought leaders started this dialogue.

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