The Real Ethics Guru

On my way to Dallas to attend Computerworlds Storage Networking World conference last week, I read an article in USA Today about Lynn Brewer, author of Confessions of an Enron Executive: A Whistleblowers Story. The article contended that Brewer, who is said to command $13,000 a pop on the business-ethics lecture circuit, exaggerated her position at the company and her whistle-blowing role and that she parlayed an undistinguished 32-month stint as an Enron employee into a lucrative career in the corporate ethics industry.

One of the USA Today reporters sources was a former Enron employee who suggested that Brewer is an imposter. It reminds me of that movie with Leo DiCaprio with Pan Am, the article quoted Brewers colleague as saying, noting that the colleague was referring to Catch Me If You Can, a story about a high school dropout who passes himself off as an airline pilot.

As you probably know, that story is a true one. The high school dropout is Frank Abagnale, who just happened to be a keynote speaker at our conference in Dallas and who spoke with me at length in an interview just prior to his keynote.

If you read the book or saw the movie, you know that Abagnales core con game was check fraud, an activity that he mastered ingeniously as a teenager, and that landed him in French, Swedish and U.S. prisons.

What you might not realize is that all of that happened decades ago, and that for the past 32 years, Abagnale has worked for the FBI, training agents in areas such as bank fraud and identity theft. The latter topic is the subject of his fifth and most recent book on criminal activity, Stealing Your Life. Like Brewer, Abagnale has a high-profile place on the lecture circuit, speaking to corporate audiences about privacy and security risks and what can be done to mitigate them.

But its what Abagnale has to say about ethics that I find the most intriguing. During my interview with him, I asked what we can do to make illicit computer-related activity a less attractive pursuit for young people. His response warrants recounting here:

There are about four reasons why we have crime to begin with. One of them is, of course, that we live in an extremely unethical society. We live in a society that doesnt teach ethics at home, a society that doesnt teach ethics in school because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. We live in a society where you cant find a four-year college course on ethics. ... So today you have a lot of young people who have no character, no ethics, and they find no problem in defrauding somebody or stealing from somebody or cheating somebody. Until we change that, crime is just going to get easier, faster, more global, harder to detect.

I really think the more technology there is in the world, the more you have to instill character and ethics. You can build all the security systems in the world; you can build the most sophisticated technology, and all it takes is one weak link someone who operates that technology to bring it all down. People dont like to talk about that issue because they think its oversimplified. But the fact is, in all my experience, thats where the problem lies. Until that changes, crime is always going to be with us.

I asked Abagnale how we can bring about that change. To fully appreciate the passion of his response, youd have to be able to look him in the eyes.

You need to bring character and ethics back into schools, he said. You need to bring it back into colleges and universities as part of a curriculum.

Whats interesting to me is that despite the apparent legitimacy of the imposter analogy, in a sense, Brewers Enron colleague couldnt have been further off base in comparing Brewer to Abagnale.

It turns out the former con man is the real ethics guru.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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