Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Compliance in The Circle

The 2017 movie The Circle, based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers, is about the impact of commercial technology on human life.  It poses common ethical and moral questions about privacy and security in a time of interconnected information sharing via social media and networked devices. The movie is a thriller which centers around a tech giant that offers advanced products and services that have transformed the way people do business and interact with each other by placing all interactions on various platforms and networks with ratings and sharing capabilities.

While the high-tech immersion depicted in The Circle is not yet current reality, technology is developing at a breakneck pace and social media platforms, the Internet of the Things, and services driven by algorithms and other artificial intelligence and machine learning are increasingly ubiquitous with each passing day. At its core The Circle is concerned with overreach of these technologies and the companies that develop and market them, and the ethical problems and moral challenges that can arise from human and societal interaction with them.

  • Secrecy as dishonesty – One of the central philosophical proclamations of The Circle is when the protagonist, Mae, is confronted with a legal transgression she committed and in her reckoning with her actions states, “Secrets are lies.” Mae’s central thesis is that she would not have committed her crime if someone had been watching or aware of what she was doing. Therefore, the suggestion is that secrecy is a form of dishonesty. Disclosure, on the other hand, is the ultimate truthfulness and in this perspective, is valued over privacy. Privacy enables people to lie and conceal, and therefore leads to misconduct and distrust. Individuals giving up their expectations of privacy would supposedly lead to greater overall security and trust. The tension between liberty and safety is not an unfamiliar one in society. The dilemma of which takes precedence will be an on-going and dominant moral dilemma.



  • Transparency overload – It’s easy to agree that transparency and openness encourages honesty and communication. Clear and public disclosure of organizational activities and values provide strong incentives for making the best ethical decisions and keeping integrity in mind when planning business strategy. However, the admirable mission of transparency is subject to subversion, as The Circle Claims of public transparency can be selective, creating an impression of a company that values openness and progressive values when in reality it is picking and choosing disclosures while hiding malfeasance and abuse behind this self-selected façade. Also, going too far in claiming transparency on a personal level can be too much of a good thing. As above, the tension between personal privacy and public disclosure is a delicate balance which must be worked thoughtfully.



  • Surveillance and consent – In promotion of corporate and societal values of transparency and shared disclosure, the company in The Circle introduces a service where tiny cameras are embedded everywhere out in the world. Some of the cameras are installed intentionally by users who wish to share, but others are placed in a variety of public locations without notification or permission to do so. The video streaming from the cameras are publicly available online for searching, indexing, and manipulation. While being able to see a high-definition and flexible feed of the surf at a beach is appealing for a number of reasons, cameras everywhere in public, regardless of their utility or entertainment value, can also be used by both private and public concerns to conduct surveillance. As these cameras are in some cases posted without consent or knowledge, this surveillance is vulnerable to unintended uses and can represent, as above, serious risks to personal rights and privacy expectations.



  • Cybersecurity – The company in The Circle develops, markets, and sells a technology service. Therefore the people who buy what they market are not only purchasers or customers but also users. They have heightened expectations and rights for protection by the company as such. Not only is the extent to which their data is collected by the company questionable (even when the users are intentionally sharing it in an excessive or imprudent manner), but the company also is obligated to store it, and may violate individuals’ rights by viewing it, accessing it, analyzing it, or not keeping it safe from intrusions by and alterations, deletions, or other misuses of, its employees or third parties. Cybersecurity risk management is a huge challenge for a company such as this one, which is clearly putting its commercial and societal ambitions over any fundamental value of information security that is discernible.



  • Unethical decision-making – While the titular company in The Circle repeatedly suggests that transparency can be a force for good and should be leveraged for this purpose by the widespread use of what boils down to be surveillance technology, reality of how humans use this technology show that its use and influence is not straightforwardly positive at all. Quite to the contrary, on many occasions in the movie disclosures and discoveries due to the technology are harmful to individuals and relationships. Despite the desire to incentivize honesty and normalize total disclosure, people end up getting hurt, both because of their own overzealous adoption of the technology and of the actions of others. In the most dramatic example of this, a person dies due to a series of events kicked off by a crowd-sourced surveillance operation performed at a company demonstration of their new service. Unethical decision-making, both in questionable design ethics by the organization and in immoral behavior by user-individuals, directly causes these tragic and disturbing events.



There are many ethical and moral dilemmas posed by availability of advanced technology which can encroach about privacy, security, and consent of individuals. Transparency, surveillance, and risks to information security and from cybersecurity are all common themes of The Circle as well.


The Office and culture of non-compliance

The Office is a very popular US television comedy series, based on a UK series of the same name. It follows the daily lives of the employees working in the Scranton branch office of a paper company. Filmed as a “mockumentary,” to imitate the style of a documentary, the show features many “interviews” with the employees and management. While it does address things in their private lives and personal relationships between the characters, most of the action of the show occurs in the workplace and is based around the dynamic of the characters as colleagues and employees.

In this light, the show offers many interesting insights and tropes about the experiences of working in a small or branch office, with an eccentric boss and idiosyncratic colleagues, dealing with policies from head office and the challenges of working together effectively. Scenarios relevant to compliance are touched upon often in the series, frequently showing examples of very poor management practices or problematic cultural values.

  • “Sexual Harassment” (Season 2, Episode 2): In this episode, the office’s HR personnel are providing sexual harassment refresher training and reviewing policies after an incident at corporate headquarters. Instead of setting a tone at the top to reinforce how important a respectful and safe working environment should be, and how inappropriate harassing behavior of any kind is, the manager Michael Scott has a tantrum and makes light of the importance of the policies. He never embraces his duty as a leader to model positive behavior; even when he defends one of his staff against the rude joke of another, it is accompanied by an improper comment of his own, as he misses the opportunity to step up and reinforce a culture of compliance.


  • “” (Season 7, Episode 9): In the cold open of this episode, the power goes out in the office and the server goes down. Instead of having reliable disaster recovery procedures on hand or a controls framework that would enable business continuity in this sort of situation, the staff must resort to guessing the password as a group. Obviously this is not advisable in light of critical cybersecurity concerns which face all businesses today, especially small offices such as this one which might be assumed to have weaker controls and be targeted by intruders hoping to gain access to the larger company network.


Actually, the “” episode, in its entirety, is another good example of poor compliance practices. Ryan Howard, with Michael’s encouragement and financial backing, claims that he has devised a web-based messaging system called In reality, Ryan is committing a fraud, in that the website does not function (despite his attempts to advertise to the contrary) and the only purpose for it is to try to sell off the domain name. Instead of uncovering and disclosing this fraud, and protecting the other investors, Michael backs Ryan. Though he later withdraws his support for Ryan, the fraud is allowed to continue because Michael does not step up and see beyond the conflict of interest posed by his personal relationship with Ryan in order to act on behalf of the investors as he could do.


  • Scott’s Tots (Season 6, Episode 12): In surely one of the more cringe-worthy moments for Michael Scott – that’s saying a lot – he fails to keep the promise he made years before to pay college tuition for a group of lower-income children. Upon their high school graduation, he must confess that he has not upheld the duty to them that he created with his promise. Instead, he apologies and tries to give them batteries as a conciliatory gesture. Apart from the terrible awkwardness of the concept itself (this episode aired in December 2009, deep within the global financial crisis, an uncomfortable time to try to address financial fraud humorously), it’s unfortunate, and a sign of weak leadership, that Michael doesn’t seem to acknowledge at all the reliance upon his integrity he created by making that commitment.


  • The Incentive (Season 8, Episode 2): In the absence of Michael Scott, his former employee and now new office branch manager Andy Bernard is proving that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to insufficiently ethical leadership. Andy finds himself at a loss for how to motivate his employees and decides to create a points-based incentive system to encourage their performance. Rather than appealing to their values or accepting lower performance in exchange for more sustainable and strategic efforts, Andy chooses a management method which will yield only short-term, temporary improvement or engagement.

From the above it is abundantly clear that The Office does not depict a corporate culture of compliance or a values-based approach to business strategy. Rather, it shows a company that is run, at least in the Scranton branch, with an ethos of non-compliance in the workplace.