A Tale of Two Deterrents: Considering the Role of Absolute and Restrictive Deterrence to Inspire New Directions in Behavioral and Organizational Security Research

By Willison, Robert; Lowry, Paul Benjamin et al. | Journal of the Association for Information Systems, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Deterrents: Considering the Role of Absolute and Restrictive Deterrence to Inspire New Directions in Behavioral and Organizational Security Research


Willison, Robert, Lowry, Paul Benjamin, Paternoster, Raymond, Journal of the Association for Information Systems


1Introduction

Computer abuse (CA) is a pervasive phenomenon that is increasing globally in severity and importance. Broadly, CA can be said to involve a wide variety of criminally and noncriminally abusive behaviors inside and outside of formal organizations; however, this manuscript focuses on internal CA (ICA), which is criminal computer behavior committed by organizational insiders. The formal positions occupied by organizational insiders give them unique access to organizational information that is not afforded to outsiders. These insiders include current and former employees, consultants, managers and executives, members of boards of directors, and often industry partners and suppliers (Posey, Roberts, Lowry, Bennett, & Courtney, 2013, p. 168). ICA accounts for a large portion of insider trading, fraud, embezzlement, the selling of trade secrets, customer privacy violations, and other criminal behaviors, all of which are highly damaging to organizations.

Organizations are generally aware of and increasingly concerned about the magnitude of the threat posed by insiders. 1 Nonetheless, the academic response to the threat posed by ICA has been anemic, despite calls in a number of papers to focus on this research area.2 For example, Mahmood et al. (2010) drew on the symbolic distinction found in "Wild West" movies between the black hat and the white hat: the "bad guys" wear the former, and the "good guys" wear the latter. Applying this distinction to information systems security (ISec) research, they noted an overemphasis on white-hat studies, especially in the area of employee compliance with organizational information security policies, and a corresponding scarcity of black-hat studies that focus on the behavior of those intent on engaging in some form of ICA. Mahmood et al. (2010) asserted the need to resist the temptation offered by white-hat research and to engage instead in harder-to-conduct black-hat studies. They argued that this shift could "elicit a virtuous cycle of research initiatives set in motion" (p. 432) and enable the development of improved safeguards based on the insights garnered from black-hat studies.

Despite the relative paucity of ICA research, one research area that has captured the attention of ISec researchers is deterrence. From a temporal perspective, the aim of deterring an individual from ICA precedes prevention efforts, which are designed to stop the actual commission process (Straub & Welke, 1998; Willison & Warkentin, 2013). That is, deterrence consists of using the threat of sanctions to inhibit conduct. The literature has generally assumed that the deterrence mechanism is perceptual, and the sanctions researchers have identified are both formal (e.g., censure by an organization) and informal (e.g., censure by a social group). ISec researchers have primarily applied deterrence theory (DT), originally developed in the field of criminology, to explain the dissuasion of insecure behaviors. The underlying assumption of perceptual DT is that would-be wrongdoers are sufficiently rational to be influenced by their knowledge of the consequences of criminal actions. Thus, DT asserts that if an individual perceives the chances of being caught committing a crime as high (i.e., sanction certainty), the associated penalties as severe (i.e., sanction severity), and the penalties as meted out quickly (i.e., sanction celerity), then the individual will be deterred from carrying out a criminal act (Nagin, 1998; Paternoster, 2010). As such, DT is fully compatible with a rational choice model of behavior.

Deterrence efforts therefore provide an additional layer of IS security. Consequently, several studies have examined this phenomenon in an attempt to enhance its effectiveness in the organizational context. Unfortunately, the results of DT-based ISec studies have been mixed, leading to speculation regarding the merits of the theory (D'Arcy & Herath, 2011). We believe that one reason for these inconsistent results is that researchers often apply DT in white-hat studies of employee compliance with organizational information security policies or in white-hat studies of noncriminal noncompliance with such policies, but without the necessary step of strong theoretical recontextualization, which we explain below (see Appendix A). …

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