Security in the news — Aftermath of Flight MH17

Downing of flight MH17


The downing of Malaysia flight MH17 is an unprecedented attack on commercial aviation. I posted news report on tweeter as soon as the news broke, but waited to write about until there was at the very least some intelligent assessment of exactly what happened. The threat of a surface-to-air missile used by terrorist to target a commercial jetliner is not an unthinkable scenario that has not been consider my risk analyst before. In fact over the last 50 years there have been many other similar incidents which have occurred over conflict zones around the world. I can also recall at least one scenario which worried intelligence authorities related to terrorist groups intent on acquiring missile technology for such a gruesome plan during the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on US soil. But in recent times the thought that a sophisticated weapons system, under the control of a State, should be put in the  hands of irregular actors would appear improbable and outside of all rules of engagement. That the same antiaircraft system should be trained on a passenger jetliner would be inconceivable; not any more. One thing appears clear, whether this was the result of a terrible accident or intentional action, the parties responsible should be severely punished as to discourage the indiscriminate use of such weapons in any armed conflict.

Shot Down Plane in history

Some news media have attempted to lay fault on the airlines for flying over a popular air route which for months has been an increasingly escalating conflict zone. In fact, some airlines had made the risk calculus and opted to fly around Eastern Ukraine. It’s understood that after Ukrainian separatist rebels shot down Ukrainian military transport and a fighter jet using Russian made weapons just days before, some degree of caution should have been practiced by all airlines even in the absence of or limited no-fly zone. Perhaps this was a foreseeable black swan event, but the reality we were supposed to believe was that a commercial airline would be safe from such risk once a plane reaches cruising altitude above thirty two thousand feet, hence the ban on flights below that range for the Eastern part of the country. Furthermore even the current duty-of-care standards for commercial aviation fall short of accounting for such events. It’s difficult to fault an airline following the conventional wisdom, in the absence of guidelines, when you consider all these permutations.

mh17-infographic-mistaken identity

No doubt this event is a game changer, and all commercial aviation stakeholders are rewriting their ops manual to involve geopolitical risk assessments from their security and risk management departments before a final decision is made on the air route to follow. We should prepare also for the potential for travel disruptions to come in the immediate future as conflicts flare up in a G-0 world struggling to define a new order. We’ve seen evidence of this just yesterday with many airlines suspending all flights to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport after reported rockets may have been aimed at the run-way following the renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Gaza Strip.

As we mourn for the victims of flight MH17, we’re also left with a sense of despair. Significant damaged has already been done to the confidence of air travelers when this terrible tragedy follows in the heels of another as yet unexplained commercial aviation accident involving Malaysia Airline flight MH370 . For a person skeptical of coincidences, is hard to come to terms with the fact that such terrible fate should revisit one single airline in a short period. Restoring confidence should be high on the list of all the stakeholders regardless of their powerful motivation to the contrary.



Some Laser Pointers, a Risk to Civil Aviation

Despite what most of us know about external risks to aircraft, there appear to be other risks to civil aviation we should know and be concerned about. Most airplane passengers only reluctantly comply with often repeated request to turn off cell phones which may create electromagnetic interference with aircraft avionics. A few years ago we awoke to the reality of bird strikes as a very real safety risk to the commercial flights. There are other sinister threats or terrorist plots from shoe to underwear bombers to parcel bombs. For a brief while after 9/11 much attention was also paid to the laser guided shoulder-fired SAMs that could be used to bring down low-flying commercial aircrafts. Because SAMs could be acquired cheap on a bourgeoning global black market for these weapons; they were the subject of intense international arms control (mass destruction of stockpiles) and non-proliferation agreements.

A NYT article recently shed light on another risk to civil aviation, equally sinister for its intended consequences, but alarming due to its widespread, mostly benign use in everyday life. Some deranged individuals have taken to directing laser pointers to commercial aircraft’s darken cockpits, which can disorient or temporarily blind a pilot during critical landing and takeoff phases. These devices have also been aimed at helicopters (especially police air patrol units), which can compromise the safety of people on board as well as on the ground if the pilot lost control of the aircraft. In the US the authorities (FAA and FDA) are well aware of the problem and as the article points out, measures are already in place to regulate distribution and sale of powerful laser pointer devices, especially Class 4 lasers. But what if anything would be done elsewhere around the world to keep an individual with ill intent from directing their laser pointers at low-flying aircrafts from densely populated areas where detection can’t be assured. Perhaps Class 4 lasers and other such devices should be included in the list of Directed Energy (non-lethal) Weapons, which are subject to international enforcement under the CCWC as adopted in 1995 in Vienna.

Laser pointers and other similar devices are ubiquitous, but as laser technology becomes cheaper, more powerful devices would be available on the world’s mostly unregulated legit and illegitimate markets. I estimate more abuses of this technology would proliferate to the detriment of public safety. For that reason I’ll be keeping close attention on developments.

Bulletproof Apparel

In previous posts I’ve layout my travel security recommendations. They have basically been focused on influencing behavior and modifying habits to gain a more secure posture.  I try not to recommend other self defense tactics because other sources offer plenty of marketing for a variety of gear. Quite frankly 90% of them are not worth your money. Looking at the bazaar of violence going on in some areas of Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere around the globe got me thinking about one set of gear that at face value may offer real benefits to keep you secure while you visit certain hotspots.

I’m talking about bulletproof apparel. These are innovative products first developed in Colombia, which have gained popularity in Latin America as the level of violence has been reaching unprecedented levels.  When violent shootouts can break out anywhere and anytime, defense against collateral damage may be a worthy investment.

How To Be The Ultimate Security-Aware Road Warrior

By Francisco Mateo

So you’re a venerable road warrior, but have you mastered the art of staying safe and secure during your international travel? If you want to practice security awareness like the pro’s do, always keep in mind that “the best security protocols are based on common sense and real world experience.” Below are few additional tips to get you ready to protect yourself like the pro’s do:

  • Consult the travel security guidance for your destination from your country’s Foreign Service. Generally it is also a good idea to seek advice regarding extreme climate conditions from reputable weather services.
  • Be aware of the financial and labor issues of your chosen airline as this would impact aircraft maintenance.
  • Scan and make two sets of photocopies of all your identity documents and be mindful of their expiration dates: passport, ID card, driver’s license, vaccination certificates, credit cards, Customs papers for imported material (portable PC, camera, satellite phone, etc.) leave one copy at home and take the other with you.
  • Use luggage that is solid and has a reliable combination lock; airport security approved locks are a good investment.
  • You’re destination country has a reputation for luggage theft shrink wrapping it is a good deterrence.
  • If the risk of loosing your bag is high consider buying Travel Insurance; using a secure identity tag on your bags and don’t pack your bag too tightly.
  • Record the content of your luggage with picture or video to serve as documentation in case it’s lost or stolen.
  • If you need to take confidential/valuable documents or objects (diskettes, money, etc.) on your trip, store them in your carry-on luggage.
  • Some countries reserve the right to scan the contents of your laptop and other portable devices; so if you want your information to remain confidential either encrypt it or take a Clean Laptop with you.
  • Keep your id papers, credit cards, money and tickets on you at all times.
  • It’s good practice to keep a set of extra clothing and footwear in your carry-on luggage.
  • Do not leave your luggage unattended at the airport
  • Never trust an unknown person with your luggage.  A stranger can either steal or manipulate your bag.
  • At the hotel, ask for a room between the second and fifth floor, not overlooking the street (for ease of emergency exit and for protection against bombs)
  • Lock the door fully; use the door-chain or other door safety device.
  • Establish the identity of visitors before opening the door
  • Deposit valuables and documents in the room safe
  • Read the safety instructions and check out the evacuation routes
  • Be CAUTIOUS and observant as to who handles and serves you beverages. Be aware that drinks can be laced with substances such as GHB, a drug that is odorless, colorless and tasteless.   It renders the victim euphoric and susceptible to suggestion.
  • Overall, maintain a low profile. Try to avoid looking like a tourist (e.g. consulting a map in public);
  • Always keep your relatives or emergency contacts aware of your travel itinerary and any changes;
  • Keep your contact list up-to-date;
  • Always keep your mobile phone charged and switched on (make sure you bring a charger and possibly an extra battery)

Remember that these tips amount to a simple philosophy called: maintaining “Situational Awareness”. Practiced often enough and they become habit, which is the state of mind all road warriors should seek to sustain.

Travel Security & Weather Statistics, Modeling and Predictions

In light of the Hurricane Season which affects both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean from June to November, I wanted to share more information I’ve researched on the subject of weather modeling as a tool to augment travel security.  I recently wrote an article, which in part, describes the importance of being aware of trends in weather events that might give rise to disasters.  In recent years these unpredictable, deadly events have been occurring with greater frequency. Our means of prevention are there, but must be harnessed through technology.  Learn how:

Plan Your Summer Travel Using Climate Statistics

Corporate Security Is a Force for Good

By Francisco Mateo

As a security manager at a major multinational organization, I’ve learned to embrace my profound responsibility to provide assistance in an extremely important mission; that of protecting staff and clients from a growing list of perils. However, convincing people you barely know to accept protection measures, that at face value may appear to run counter to their well-being, is no walk in the park. I can assure you of that, and that is what we must do every day. Yes, it’s a thank-less job, as many of my colleague would affirm; which is why we command pay equal to executives of the same level. At a profound level some of us also aspire to more lofty rewards, mainly knowing that we have direct input into keeping people safe while they travel; work in hostile environments and leverage the supply chain to bring safe products to consumers.  As I stated initially this is a task that gets evermore complex. It is one area of our daily duties that requires our focus and recognition of seemingly unknown threats as well as the know how to device swift countermeasures.

The evidence is plain to see.  Just think back to the tainted milk crisis in China which began in 2008.  After thousands of babies were hospitalized with kidney failure, the Chinese government declared a public health crisis that sparked a global recall of all powder milk products produced in China. The initial response understated the far reaching impact that the use of melamine, a carcinogenic substance, would have on food products.  China is to remain the world’s manufacturing hub, but their lack of controls over the use of dangerous raw materials is bound to continue as long as demand outstrips production output. For that reason consumer product companies have a duty of care to remain vigilant when sourcing raw materials or outsourcing manufacturing of consumer products.  We in the corporate security function can contribute our investigation skills by applying this know how to the due diligence process. We should not accept a third-party manufacturer’s claims of having the capacity to deliver products in time and to our quality specifications at face value. We must dig deeper into their safety records, production methods, compliance with international regulatory standards and even the moral compass that drives the operation to determine the likelihood that sham methods and corner-cutting could lead to tainted products that would put consumer’s health at risk.

Another area of concern to which corporate security has been active participant is combating counterfeit products. An off-shoot of the global economic growth, these seedy illicit business practices are the underbelly of globalization.  Aided by improved communications link, cheap transport and flexible (or simply corrupt) customs organizations, counterfeiters have blanketed many major markets with their cheap products. In some areas counterfeit products compete head to head with legitimate brands, eroding market share at fast clips. Beyond the downright theft of intellectual property, we know that counterfeiter’s illicit practices put the public safety and security at risk. Simply put they’re not in the business of delivering safe products to market, neither do they respond to the sovereign need of controlling which products cross national borders as well as paying the tariffs that should go to ensuring consumer safety. Furthermore, profits from counterfeit product sales have been known to go to terrorist organizations in furtherance of their deadly operations all over the world. Here too corporate security has a prime role to play liaising with law enforcement and customs official to disrupt the flow of counterfeit products in the supply chain. We are also educating our internal constituents to adopt unique marking and packaging technology to facilitate awareness among consumers to easily identify knockoff products. In a nutshell we can be the catalyst that makes this entire process come full circle.

Sometimes our advance risk scenario planning would project us into obscure areas, often only discussed in academic circles. Such is the case of bio-hacking, or the tinkering with the basic building blocks of life by many biology students and enthusiast worldwide—using cheap synthetic DNA and lab equipment bought inexpensively on the internet. Five years ago this wasn’t even on our radars, but the advent of cheap technology, the decoding of the genome, disposable lab equipment being bought and sold freely and bit of crowd-sourcing could lead to accidental or intentional development and release of deadly toxins.  In the past biological testing and engineering was conducted in heavily regulated and controlled government and university labs, thus bio-security (Biosecurity denotes policies and procedures designed to prevent the deliberate theft, diversion, or malicious use of high-consequence pathogens and toxins) remained the sole purview of government agencies.  Today with the growing DIY crowd experimenting with DNA from labs at home and other non-regulated facilities, there has been an increase emphasis on tracking this activity in order to keep people with nefarious intent away from these technologies. But there is also a high risk that gone-hoe hobbyists (even with benign purpose in mind) in the process of mixing or swapping genes would create deadly toxins without regards to obvious hazards to themselves and others.  Many of us are responsible for the protection of lab facilities, which is why we should be concerned about both the potential unauthorized removal of equipment and substances to further these independent (clandestine) research activities. Likewise, we should be concerned about the unauthorized used of these lab facilities in the same way. Corporate security should assist setting strict access control systems and procedures to ensure only authorized use of labs and equipment. Beyond this we should be considering sensors that would detect and alert us to the introduction or use of dangerous substances. All in all this is an emerging area of research we should remain aware of.

Some areas of business life have become difficult to manage especially when changes could come as fast as lighting, of course, I’m talking about business travel. To be specific I’m talking about disruption to travel due to natural or man-made disasters. It is often unpredictable and its impact could be widespread. Recently we’ve seen an increase in these Black Swan events, the winter storm and ash clouds in Europe as well as a number of high profile airline employee union strikes come to mind. All these events have in common the fact that hundreds of thousands of travelers were left stranded far from their final destinations. This in effect has also thrown a monkey wrench on company’s ability to make business travel plan on the fly.  Many in the corporate security function already track business traveler destinations as part of our value added service. Besides the jurisprudence that has been chiseled out around the issue of a company’s duty of care to guarantee employee safety while on business travel, there are no set standards of what companies should do. In the absence of such guidelines many practices have been developed. Employee tracking has become invaluable in light of the growing perils. Traveler destination data is often overlaid with open source intelligence to get early warning, which allows the security officer to alert travelers in a potential hot-zone. Furthermore, if the employee travel plans are disrupted due to any of the aforementioned hazards, alternative plans are arranged. If travel crisis strikes, emergency evacuations could be also be arranged. Advances in computing technology have also allowed us to tap quantitative models of both natural and man-made incident data to provide more predictive incident monitoring, which we can use to leverage prevention. In essence, the more we know about a particular destination the best prepared we are to guide travelers whether to go or not.  It is a task we take extremely serious, since a wrong call means that lives could be at stake.

From Antiquity to the Contemporary periods, works of art make up an important part of our shared human experience. The sum trust of our humanities, elegantly displayed in museums, galleries and private collections the world over. But in our modern times it is not this human genius that is in vogue. No, what we’ve experienced is the opposite, the dark side of our humanity that only sees value, summed up in monetary profits, when they lay eyes on the greatest work of arts known to human kind.  The trend in art theft is truly appalling. Art thieves have become more brazen in their hits, striking in broad daylight. In the past we’ve witnessed certain sophistication in the schemes employed by art thieves. Today, they’ve mostly exploited holes in museums and art gallery’s physical security array. A quick cost/benefit analysis comparing the value of paintings and other work of arts versus the security measures available at the time of the thefts would reveal the pyrrhic victory of the latter. Yes, it is true that many of the endowments that financially anchor these institutions have been reeling, with lower contributions due to the global financial crisis.  It’s likely that many essential services have been scaled back in cost cutting measures. Security practitioners can play a decisive role here, volunteering time and contributing our know how by conducting risk assessment (Analyzing foot-traffic flow data, behavioral analysis, contractor and employee screening, etc.) to determine vulnerabilities and recommending security countermeasures that can be delivered at lower cost. The same “lean security” principles applied to corporate security operations can add tremendous value to keeping art works safe and sound for all to enjoy.

As we look over the horizon, the perils would continue to get more complex. A recent commentator put it this way “”we are living in a world of cascading and intertwined threats…” in reference to the way risk is compounded and overlaps, paving the way to catastrophic failures. Whether man-made or natural, our risk scenarios are evolving, thus it is time for trained professionals to step up to plate and help organized solutions for the good of our society. In the age of corporate social responsibility, we security practitioners within major industries should be doing more to contribute our knowledge and leveraging resources to make our societies more resilient to shocks.

Book Review: Executive’s Guide to Personal Security

This book is a bit dated, but overall a good read for the lay person. It serves as a primer for important incidents that have impacted personal security for executives and tourist engaged in international travel earlier this decade. I found the awareness section to be a bit technical making reference to the technique as a skill cultivated mostly by cops and security guards. A bit disappointing since having the ability to be situation aware is the single most important thing a traveler should focus on to make sensible security decisions. That should be clear to the lay person reading any Personal/Travel Security advice book.

Read Page Samples Here: Executive’s Guide to Personal Security