• United States



Safe Versus Sorry

Feb 01, 20044 mins
IT Leadership

Security is now at the heart of what our society cares about and thinks about, sometimes obsessively, whether or not it wants to.

Security is now at the heart of what our society cares about and thinks about, sometimes obsessively, whether or not it wants to. In the same way dotcom entrepreneurs found themselves at the center of cultural preoccupations and myth-making several years ago, security now claims preeminence. Where this will lead is interesting to speculate on. Maybe, as time goes by, familiarity will breed, well, familiarity. Orange will again become the word no other word rhymes with rather than the penultimate beacon of national anxiety. And, despite persistent threats, we will eventually recover our fat, happy forward stride.

Where we are now, though, is far from fat or happy. Our nation, which once styled itself as supremely confident and comfortable, has created corporate and governmental directorates built around caution, protection and the cultivation of second thoughts. Besides chief security officers, there are now chief ethics officers, chief privacy officers, chief risk officers and chief compliance officers. A writer friend of mine, Leigh Buchanan of the Harvard Business Review, refers to this cadre collectively as the “Caution Corps.”

The quintessentially American attitudes of “Live and let live” and “Just do it” are taking a backseat to something a little less familiar: “Better safe than sorry.”

On the government side, 22 once-autonomous agencies are being recombined into the Department of Homeland Security behemoth. And DHS is implementing broad security initiatives (US Visit, the program to fingerprint and photograph arriving foreigners, is only the latest) with counterterror benefits as debatable as their Constitutional implications.

A similar attitude adjustment is occurring in businesses. The new emphasis on compliance, safety and right behavior may have the effect, at least in the near term, of retarding the pursuit of promising but risky opportunitiesof literally slowing business down. The sting to the financial markets of gross corporate malfeasance and the fallout of diminished confidence in the integrity of top management have made more welcome some regulatory controls.

Opinion about these developments is mercurial. On the one hand, security now has the potency to trump other important values. On the other, a durable minority of citizens is in a state of persistent fretfulness over what it sees as the civil liberties equivalent of “bombing the village to save the village.” In a survey of CSO readers last year, one-third of the respondents expressed the fear that the United States would “become a police state.” For the moment, however, the clear majority gives the benefit of the doubt to any well-meaning attempt to provide greater civic safety. And if that should also bring about some degree of reduced liberty? Too bad, but so be it.

And yet, to be justifiable, security must first be genuinely effective. Standing in the way of its effectiveness is a striking irony: The instruments of true reform are held hostage by philosophies that oppose them. The Bush administration is fundamentally hostile to regulation (as, not coincidentally, are most businesses). Thus we have approaches to critical infrastructure security and the reform of business conduct that are built largely upon voluntary or half-hearted mechanisms that critics contend will be insufficient to bring about the necessary changes. Are half measures good enough to restore people’s confidence in business? Maybe. Are they good enough to produce a robustly secure critical infrastructure? Doubtful. In another survey of CSO readers last year, 44 percent of respondents saw regulation as the best way to secure the nation.

Likewise, as citizens become evermore attuned to the “better safe than sorry” mantra, popular clamor for full measures may become irresistible. In the meantime, maybe everyone should just pretend that doing the right thing is compulsory rather than optional.