The Ethics of Honey Traps

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In response to a recent PursuitMag article on the topic, UK ethics researcher Kevin Macnish explores the complicated ethics of honeytraps.

A week ago, Susanna Speier wrote an interesting, and for me provocative, piece on honey traps for PursuitMag. I had already been thinking about these for a book on surveillance ethics that I’m currently working on, and this has given me the opportunity to devote a bit more time to thinking about the issue.

I think that the point Susanna made about honey traps functioning to see whether a person is capable of infidelity is key. Clearly, a honey trap will not (always) uncover whether a person is having an affair. After all, just because X is having an affair, it does not follow that X is, therefore, promiscuous. X might be committed to the person with whom he/she is having the affair and in the throes of seeking to leave the marriage (or whatever form the existing relationship takes). Further, just because X responds to the enticement, this might be the first time he/she has ever done so and does not establish previous infidelity.

Obviously, I accept that there are people who are unfaithful in their committed relationships and will leap at a chance to have sex with anyone who shows the remotest interest. In such cases, a honey trap may well be an effective way of confronting them (or their partner) with their behavior and bringing about an end to an unhappy relationship. Just how many honey traps are targeted on people like this (as opposed to people who are generally more discreet), I don’t know.

However, I do think that there are some other important elements going on here that should be borne in mind:

1. Are you setting your partner up to fail?

One is that, ultimately, we are all subject to temptation (not necessarily sexual, but this is undoubtedly common). The question is then, how much temptation a person can resist before they “give in.” To this end, I liked the suggestion made by Martinez (in the article referenced by Susanna’s piece) that the entire interaction is recorded so the partner can see and determine for him/herself what is reasonably avoidable temptation and what is going too far.

However, this raises questions about covert recording in a bar, which may not be seen, ethically at least, as an entirely public venue (in that people might reasonably expect to have private interactions in a bar without being recorded, and would have cause to be upset if they discovered they were being recorded).

This also raises the question as to whether the cause is sufficient to justify both the surveillance and the attempted honey trap. I wasn’t convinced about Martinez’s response here. It’s worth noting that the partner already suspecting the target of cheating does not prevent the honey trap from being entrapment. I find it hard to see how a honey trap is not entrapment. The important question is whether the entrapment is justified.

2. Do you need surveillance, or relationship counseling?

Further, it would seem strange to hire a firm to carry out a honey trap on someone you don’t suspect of infidelity. That would speak (to me, at least) of a pretty insecure relationship between the client and the target.

At the very least, I think that it would be incumbent on the PI (or whoever is dealing with the client) to discuss the evidence for infidelity and, depending on that evidence, maybe suggest that the client and target either discuss the evidence or seek relationship counseling. Either way, a honey trap should not be a matter of first resort in the case of suspicion of infidelity. To offer a honey trap to a client without exploring these options could border on exploitation of the client’s insecurities.

To offer a honey trap to a client without exploring [other] options could border on exploitation of the client’s insecurities.

3. Are you gaining useful information?

Thirdly, if the honey trap is unsuccessful, what would this prove? It would not prove that the target is not having an affair (assuming the target is a man, he may be committed to his mistress and not seeking a relationship, or just sex, with anyone else). It would not even prove that the target is not capable of having an affair. (The target may be distracted, in a bad mood, have eaten something that disagrees with him, etc., and so just not show an interest for these reasons.) Maybe a succession of honey traps could overcome this latter concern. But then the target is going to start getting suspicious. Again, you have to ask how many times would this be justified?

4. What constitutes a ‘mission accomplished’?

Fourthly, what counts as successful? Flirtatious behavior is not infidelity, although it may make for uncomfortable viewing after the event, nor is exchanging phone numbers (which happens at most conferences and plenty of bars without necessarily implying intent to infidelity). If physical contact is not allowed, then it seems hard to see how infidelity, still less the intent to be unfaithful, could be established, except in some extreme cases.

5. What are the dangers?

Finally, it is worth weighing the potential harms of a honey trap. What if the target is faithful, and wants to be faithful, but has a lapse of judgment? Or if the target would normally be faithful, but is going through a difficult time at work and at home, and finds a sympathetic ear in the trap, leading him/her to push things further than would be sensible? In these cases, it’s not hard to see why some people would see this as wrecking a marriage.

Summary

Overall, I struggle to see how one can justify honey traps ethically. It is dubious that they prove much beyond the fact that people are human and subject, at times, to give in to temptation. Weighed against that questionable benefit is the tremendous harm that this could do to a marriage or similar committed partnership.

Saying that, Susanna introduced this topic and I have provided one side of the argument. I would be keen to hear from PIs or others who engage in honey traps as to how they would respond to the issues that I have raised here. I’m sure that there will be aspects which I’ve overlooked or simply got wrong (not being involved in honey traps myself), and so I would be grateful to be put right on anything that I have got wrong in my analysis.

 

Head shotAbout the Author:

Kevin Macnish, PhD is a teaching fellow and consultant in ethics at the IDEA Centre, University of Leeds. He has written numerous articles on the ethics of surveillance. You can follow him at @KMacnish.