When many people think about executive protection details, they picture large, imposing men wearing dark suits, sunglasses, a concealed weapon or two, and a communication earpiece. It wasn’t too long ago that this stereotype often matched with reality. But today, this bodyguard-type image of executive protection has evolved dramatically, as Pinkerton’s Kevin Cox, Managing Director, East Region & Canada, and a Director, can attest. Today’s executive protection professionals require a working knowledge of technology tools, an understanding of international cultures, politics and current events, and increased situational awareness skills in a dynamic world presenting constant threat.

Technology is transforming executive protection

We’ve written often about how access to information, and turning it into actionable intel, has increased in importance, as technology has made information more readily available. Unfortunately, that holds true for those looking to do harm to executives/VIPs. According to the Director, “Ten years ago, a stalker would have to work pretty hard to determine the travel plans of the target. Today, the internet makes tracking a person much easier, which in turn makes our jobs that much more challenging.” Cox agrees and says that it’s not only the executive who can expose private information. 

“We had an executive traveling to France recently who did not want his visit noticed by the media. He was quite careful not to publish any travel photos or details. However, a family member innocently posted information about the trip via social media. The media were waiting at the airport when the executive arrived.” 

A major shift for executive protection professionals is that they have to be technologically savvy enough to make use of the latest data and information tools. No longer can someone claim “I don’t do Twitter,” or “I only know how to use my phone to make calls and check email.” 

“An EP detail can’t have a weak link, someone who doesn’t have the most up-to-date information,” says the Director, “and today, that is delivered in real-time via phones and tablets. You can’t rely on old-school techniques because the ‘bad guys’ certainly aren’t. It has changed the profile of an executive professional and you simply have to be comfortable with technology.”

Today, women make up a larger part of the security workforce, people with computer skills are in high demand and specialized skills that are focused on knowledge rather than strength are more valued. “We certainly favor brains over brawn these days,” says the Director.

Globalization of travel

Whether it is expansion into growth markets, needing to address employees in distant countries or meeting with key stakeholders to plan the company’s future, executives are traveling internationally for a wide number of reasons. And, as Cox explains, they are traveling more than ever. “Years ago, the C-suite didn’t travel much but today, that’s changed. And many of them have to travel to unstable regions because business growth demands it. This increased risk means that executive protection teams have to prepare in advance and increase their situational awareness on the ground.” 

Cox cited Turkey as an example of a country seeing many more executive visits. “A few years ago, we might have had three or four executive protection assignments in Turkey per year. Now, it’s more like two per month. The increased frequency requires that we be vigilant in collecting current information.” 

Work protecting an executive during a trip starts long before they leave. Advanced intelligence gathering has to take place so that situations can be anticipated and risks mitigated. Intelligence regarding protests, civil unrest, terrorist activity, weather conditions, recent crime rates and other elements all go into creating a travel plan that maximizes safety.

“It is common now for our team to aid in an executive’s travel itinerary so that risks are considered and dealt with proactively,” says Cox. “Last year, we had a client that was meeting key partners in Istanbul. The day before the trip, the attempted coup d’etat took place, sending the region into turmoil. The executive, and those he was meeting, still wanted to have the meeting. We had to present all the risks to them before they agreed that postponing the trip was the wisest move. Years ago, we likely wouldn’t have been a part of that discussion.”

Lone wolf terrorism eliminates safe zones

Over the past several years, high-profile terrorist attacks, such as those that took place in Paris and Brussels in 2016 and Stockholm in 2017, have occurred at an alarming rate. The result is that “safe zones,” places where one could be reasonably assured of safety when traveling, are virtually non-existent. This puts more pressure on security teams to protect employees when they are traveling to anticipate situations. 

Our international network is constantly gathering data and information to update our in-the-field people about different destinations,” explains the Director. “When an attack takes place, it’s so important to get a stream of up-to-date information pulled from a variety of sources that our field team can rely on to make recommendations.”

Criminals and terrorists are collecting data, too, and then using it to organize. Social media has played a very large role in helping terrorists recruit members and carry out complex plans by virtue of being able to communicate in real-time with those carrying out attacks. Twitter gets a lot of the press for being the “go-to” platform for these activities but the Director says that the more obscure platforms are more frequently being used. 

“Twitter is the low-hanging fruit of chatter monitoring. The more advanced organizers are using less familiar platforms so that they can communicate without risk of messages being intercepted. It requires that teams learn what these preferred platforms are so they can monitor them and provide advance warnings.”

“Terrorism today can be carried out by one person looking to make a statement and cause chaos,” says Cox. “What it requires of executive protection teams is that they are keenly aware of the situations around them at all times and, armed with advanced intel, are anticipating worst-case scenarios so that they can react if one were to come to fruition.”

The challenges for today’s executive protection professionals are in many ways greater than ever. Proper training is a key element as is a strong desire to stay up to date on the latest techniques that can be used to keep assigned executives protected. “Gone are the days of details being just ‘guys with guns,’” says the Director. “It’s a whole new world and requires different skills.”

Published April 12, 2017