CRJU245 - Security in 21st Century

Week 6 Lecture

Ethics and Private Security

Ethics are extremely important in the private security profession, as they are in all professions, industries, and businesses. Ethics can be defined as the practical normative study of the rightness and wrongness of human conduct. All human conduct can be viewed in the context of basic and applied ethical considerations. Basic ethics is the rather broad moral principles that govern all conduct, while applied ethics focuses these broad principles on specific applications. For example, a basic ethical tenet assumes that lying or stealing is wrong. Applied ethics would examine and govern under what conditions such a wrong would, indeed, take place and deal with constructing resultant personal conduct, for the subject matter of ethics is human conduct.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his classic Nicomachean Ethics, stated that “every art and every inquiry and similarly every action and choice is thought to aim some good.” If one is ethical, he or she does the right thing, and similarly, if one does the right thing, he or she is ethical.

Ethics in private security reaches a global scale as well as a domestic one. For years, private security companies have been used in one way or another in military operations. The term “mercenary” is defined as a person who participates in an armed conflict who is not a national or party to the conflict, but rather engages in the hostilities for personal gain (Wesbter’s, 2005.) In today’s global conflicts, private security contractors are participating armed and unarmed combat, combat support roles, training, advising, and other security functions worldwide.

According to P.W. Singer (2007), there is one private security contractor for every ten military personnel in an area. Private security companies are on every continent except Antarctica, and operates in more than 50 countries worldwide. In addition to operations involving training, military combat, and combat support roles, much of their job is to provide security to facilities, residents and projects. They provide security management consulting to companies and government entities. In 2003, a private military company was contracted by the U.S. State Department to provide security and protection details for diplomats and ambassadors entering and leaving Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern counties.

It is argued by supporters of the use of security contractors that they are necessary and relieve a burden on the military personnel in an area. They provide a valuable service that might otherwise go unfilled, and thereby putting diplomats, citizens, and military personnel in danger. In a number of ways, some of the training private security companies provide for their security personnel can be superior and more up to date that than of their military counterparts. They can be deployed to areas more quickly and without a lot of bureaucracy because, like a security company providing patrol services to a shopping mall, they go where their employers direct them, as governed by the agreement between the security company and the organization that contracted their service.

Sixteenth century Italian writer, philosopher, and historian Niccolo Machiavelli, on the subject of contracted military personnel, in his most famous work The Prince said:

The mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous, and if anyone supports his state by arms of mercenaries, he will never stand firm or sure, as they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, faithless, bold amongst friends, cowardly amongst enemies, they have no fear of God, and keep no faith with men.

In this passage, Machiavelli is addressing an ethical dilemma with the use of hired soldiers in war. The use of private security contractors in such a scale brings about questions of ethics. In whose best interest are these security contractors acting? The company’s? The government that is paying for their services? Their own?

Ethical Conduct of Security Firms and Their Employees

Many private security organizations and associates have issued their own ethics codes or value statements to guide members of their organizations. ASIS International, for example, has published its own ethical standards and has devoted an entire section of its comprehensive assets protection course to this crucial area.

Why do security executives need to know about ethics? Unethical behavior within companies can threaten the security of the organization. Security executives are also called upon to conduct sensitive investigations that require attention to ethical issues. Five years ago, the scandals at Enron, Tyco, Rite-Aid, ImClone, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom set the stage for the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in July 2002. As a result, the risks to all organizations have grown dramatically. As risk managers, security professionals need to understand these risks and the environment in which business is operating. In addition, more current issues, such as privacy, domestic spying, boardroom leaks and investigatory pre-texting, have the attention of Congress and the Department of Justice. The HP scandal seems to be the current lightning rod for all these issues. The profile of security executives has been raised dramatically. They are responsible for physical property, personal safety, and physical assets. They are risk managers so they understand that they need to be concerned about reputational risks as well.

A code of ethics is a partial solution to strengthening the professionalism of security practitioners. Such a code helps to guide behavior by establishing standards of ethical conduct. According to Purpura, ethics is a branch of philosophy dealing with values that relates to the nature of human conduct. Conduct and values within the context of business operations become more complex because individuals are working together to maximize profit.

A host of problems can develop for a security business and its employees when unethical decisions are made. Customers rely on business promises of quality and the commitment to stand behind a product or service. Having a code makes good business sense because consumers make purchasing decisions based on their own experience or the experiences of others. Besides a loss of customers, unethical decisions can result in criminal and civil liabilities. Quality ethics must be initiated and supported by top management, who must set an example without hypocrisy. All employees must be a part of the ethical environment through a code of ethics and see it spelled out in policies, procedures and training.

Ethical Issues by Private Security Contractors Overseas

Like the private security sector domestically, the international private military contractors have had their share of ethical and possible misconduct by their contractors.

In 2004, one private military company was involved in an incident where 17 Iraqi civilians were killed by company contractors. They were declared immune from prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department nearly two months after the incident, which lead to Iraqi officials passing laws the removed any immunity from prosecution to private security contractors.

In another incident in 2007, a private military company was accused of attempting to bribe the Iraqi government during an incident involving operations by the company where non-combatants and civilians were fired upon by contractors, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries.

Also, in 2007, another private military company was involved in a federal investigation into whether or not millions of dollars were used illegally or unethically, including the construction of an Olympic-size swimming pool, at the request of Iraqi police officials. The contractors were tasked with training the Iraqi police on modern policing tactics, weapons, and security measure.

The same company had an incident where one of their contractors shot and killed a taxi driver, who, witnesses said, posed no threat to the shooter. In 1998 in Bosnia, contractors were involved in sex trafficking, sexual misconduct with minors, and human trafficking.

Many other high profile cases have been brought against both private military companies and individual private security contractors for a variety of misconduct, such as bribery, fraud, illegal and unnecessary use of force, trafficking in drug, stolen goods, weapons, and other military equipment.

In response to the misconduct, in 2007, the U.S. federal law was amended laws so that the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, the body of law that governs criminal procedure and conduct to military personnel, would apply to private military companies and their security contractors.

Has this change in the law changed the behavior of these companies and their employees? Every employee of a private military company providing security faces the ongoing ethical dilemma of many domestic private security companies providing law enforcement services. How do you balance the wishes of the company executive with profitability and the ethics of the company, the individuals, and those that employ them?


Newsome, B. (2014). A Practical Introduction to Security and risk management. Sage Publications, Inc. University of California, Berkeley.

Barranca, S.M. (2009) Unbecoming Conduct: Legal and Ethical Issues of Private Contractors in Military Situations. Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD Available at:

Machairas, D (2014) The Ethical Implication of the Use of Private Military Force: Regulatable or Irreconcilable Journal of Military Ethics 13 (1) 8 May 2014 pp 49-69

Singer, P.W. (2007) Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, Updated Edition Ithaca Cornell University Press

Mercenary (2005) in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (11th ed.) Springfield MA