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8 Oct 2008

The ethics of entrapment

Police are using technology to capture criminals, for example by fitting out vehicles with CCTV and leaving them in vulnerable locations to lure car thieves. The CCTV images are so good that it's easy to make out the criminal's facial features and sometimes even his name and birth date tattoo'd on his neck (doh!).

But consider the question about whether such activity is ethical. From most perspectives (other than the criminals'!), it seems acceptable since the recording devices are within someone's property space which is clearly being violated by the criminals. One might argue that leaving such an attractive lure in a vulnerable place is entrapment, encouraging an otherwise law-abiding person to step over the line and break in, but what do you think? This is a good topic for a tea-time discussion in the average office.

UPDATE Oct 17th: Here's another situation with similar ethical issues. The FBI has allegedly been running DarkMarket, a carders' web exchange for stolen credit card numbers. What a great way to capture details about the criminals, the cards and the culture, but is it ethical? To make it work, they had to let a significant number of carders' transactions go ahead without interference, leading to millions of pounds worth of fraudulent purchases and costs for the card holders and/or credit card companies, banks and retailers concerned, in the same way that undercover drugs cops let and in fact help drug deals proceed until they have the opportunity to spring the trap.


  1. Unless we believe that all people are incapable of acting within societal norms, than how is it entrapment?

  2. This is an issue I struggle with in The Honey Stick Project. Leaving USB memory drives in public places, expecting them to be picked up and used, could be regarded by some in the same way as the police cars. However, to mitigate the chances of people viewing it this way, the devices I use only detect the usage, they don't make any attempt to collect personally identifiable information.

    As for the police situation, I believe it's only considered entrapment if the director of the exercise does something explicitly to influence the behavior of the subject individual.

    I tend to agree with this intepretation. But it all depends, therefore, on the situation. For example, if there was an undercover cop nearby daring the person to steal it, then I think that's crossing the line.

    Just leaving the car there, even with the keys in it, would not be entrapment, in my mind.