Intelligence Analysis in the Age of Disinformation.

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Sometimes the US intelligence community gets it wrong, but often, they get it right. And sometimes, they get it really right. We featured the excerpt below in our summary piece on the ODNI threat assessment back in February – highlighting its importance for those who provide analysis and information for decision-makers.

“Future cyber operations will almost certainly include an increased emphasis on changing or manipulating data to compromise its integrity (i.e., accuracy and reliability) to affect decision-making, reduce trust in systems, or cause adverse physical effects. Broader adoption of IoT (internet of things) devices and AI—in settings such as public utilities and health care—will only exacerbate these potential effects… cyber actors, who post disinformation on commercial websites, might seek to alter online media as a means to influence public discourse and create confusion… (pg. 2)” 

As the perfect storm that is the US Presidential election is upon us, we are facing a global problem of how to address veracity and credibility of sources, not just for analysts and researchers but for the general public; who ultimately make voting decisions that set the course for US government foreign policy towards the rest of the world.

The proliferation of information on the internet has given rise to an avalanche of disinformation. At the same time, disparate groups across political, cultural and idealist-driven divides increasingly disagree on what constitutes credible information. This creates problems for analysts and decision makers as we grapple with utilizing the information that most accurately reflects the reality facing our business or organization. Below we outline some thoughts and resources for addressing disinformation within your organization, analysis and decision-making:

Agree on a common understanding credibility.

Like many terms in the geopolitical-security world, we sometimes assume that when we discuss credible information, that we have a common understanding and acceptance of what constitutes a credible source. Even within small organizations, opinions on credibility often vary markedly; informed by each individuals’ life experiences and personal biases. For example, one analyst could be assigning high amounts of credibility to only sources that are politically left leaning, while another may be doing the same with right leaning media. (In reality, we hope analysts are looking at sources across the ideological spectrum to understand what their customers may be reading too). Having team discussions about how your team defines credibility – and even utilizing a simple credibility ratings system for information and human sources – like the one used by the US intelligence community – can go a long way to ensuring good communication, use of high-integrity sources and internal understanding of whats credible and what may not be.

Emphasize the importance of integrity of reporting and information over speed of reporting. 

While there are notable exceptions to this rule, in general, we should rarely be focused on being the first to report breaking news information to our leadership. There are so many free and paid services that do this already – and some that do it really well. The role of the intelligence and analysis function is to make sure that the organization has the most organization specific, relevant, high-integrity information and analysis to ensure high-quality decision making. Some good resources for understanding the integrity of online sources and journalistic guidelines and standards can be found hereherehere and here. Teams can learn a lot through reviewing these materials, both about how they can better assess the integrity of sources, as well as how to evaluate other organizations and the sources of information they provide.

Develop an understanding of disinformation. 

While Russian propaganda is receiving the most attention at present, it should be noted that disinformation campaigns are as old as espionage itself and have been utilized across the world. What has changed is how disinformation is disseminated and its exceptionally wide and quick propagation across the internet – which often makes it difficult to counter before it has become accepted as true. The EU, and increasingly, the US, have been especially affected by propaganda campaigns since sanctions were levied against Russia in 2014 over Ukraine. The EU has even created a task force responsible for educating the public about disinformation and highlighting disinformation in the press.

Exercise extreme caution in utilizing leaked materials of any kind. 

Leaked documents, such as those released by Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and other actors, can provide insight into how individuals and organizations communicate. Unfortunately, it is also exceptionally difficult to identify whether the information in these documents has been tampered with, is outright false or taken out of context. In our work, the most important thing we can do related to leaked materials is ensure that our personnel and organizations are not in danger as a result of information in purported leaked documents.

Understand the WHY of fake information. 

While much of the above-discussed disinformation is designed to sow confusion and divisive politics, there are many types of disinformation and fake information out there today. These do not all serve the same purpose. For example, a large body of fake information is driven by the pursuit of web advertising revenue; fake news sites that publish alarmist headlines in an effort to get readers to click on the story. Many of these are so poorly written that their veracity is easily questioned – but not all. There are also fake news sites that are generally devoted to providing entertainment (also to bring in advertising revenue, but overtly). The most well known among these is The Onion; but lesser known satire sites can get picked up by less savvy readers and quoted as fact. By learning the motives behind fake information, it is often easier for analysts to divine fact vs fiction and good sources vs bad ones.

Stay on top of the changing information landscape

Finally, in an information environment that is changing by the minute, ensure that your team’s remit includes regular reviews of their sourcing choices and an assessment of their personal biases towards information. Keep them focused on utilizing high quality information from credible government sources, think tanks, academia, and news sites with a record of integrity and accurate reporting. Ensure an understanding of best practices in the use of social media and ground-level sources. And insist on independent source verification of all reported information, including that which comes in from information vendors’ everyday. After all, our analysis is only as good as the credibility of the information that it is based upon. 

Don’t wait until October to think about surprises.

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“The world is much more uncertain and volatile than it has ever been before. And that is because of some factors coming together now that have never come together before. And they amplify each other. You have a totally different world order and we struggle with that enormously”  Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever – comments made in interviews for Thinking the Unthinkable; A New Imperative for Leadership in the Digital Age”

 
Intelligence professionals need to be fundamentally forward looking in how we approach our roles as guardians of our organization’s resilience – especially as it relates to major external shocks.  With potentially disruptive US elections approaching and a host of hot button geopolitical issues on the table – the economy and global security environment are ripe for shocks. Excepting political risk created by the elections, most of these issues exist without the US Presidential elections as a factor.  What makes them especially worthy of our attention right now is their potential to catalyze actors to provocative actions with intent to influence outcomes, capitalize on US distraction with domestic politics, or intimidate allies and other foreign actors. All of these may increase political and security risk for multi-national organizations as foreign governments react to or seek to hedge their risk based on candidate’s foreign policy and trade platforms.
 
While it can be hard (and politically touchy) to train leadership attention on strategic impacts of these hot button issues, prepping decision makers for possible shocks and discussing mitigation measures in the event of a major unanticipated event is a key reason our roles exist.  This is an opportunity for risk intelligence to add real value and depth to their organization’s risk management capacity.   
 
With that in mind, here are just a few of the issues we’re addressing with our clients as the fall approaches:
 
Political risk from US elections impacting US multi-nationals overseas
 
For the first time in decades, political scientists and financial markets anticipate substantial political risk associated with the upcoming US elections. For multi-national organizations, the risk associated with foreign government perception, potential sharp changes in US foreign policy, and foreign reaction to perceived risk to their interests is sizable.  From the impact on defense and trade agreements to increasingly punitive regulatory environments to increased anti-American sentiment, it’s important to consider which way the winds are blowing and begin thinking about ways to mitigate these risks in this increasingly unpredictable election year. 
 
Simmering geopolitical challenges
 
Last week China announced it would deploy its first nuclear submarine days after the US announced it was lifting a decades old arms embargo on Vietnam.  In a climate of continual small escalations in the South China Sea, this was not as alarming as perhaps it should’ve been.  Meanwhile, North Korea continues with bellicose rhetoric and aggressive weapons technology development. Russia’s unpredictable foreign policy may also worsen in response to the US missile shield in Europe or in the likely event that sanctions are extended in July. Further agitations designed to provoke response from Presidential candidates shift the general tenor of the election, or in anticipation of a muted response from a distracted US political establishment should be anticipated on at least one of these fronts.  While these are high level geopolitical issues, all of them have real world impacts for the security, political and regulatory environment for US companies operating abroad. 
 
Global economic shocks
 
The 2008 financial crisis completely changed the trajectory of the political conversation ahead of the 2008 election and shifted the fortunes of millions of people around the world.  As the US elections approach, increasingly erratic US and overseas markets may be the norm, depending on who is polling ahead in the race, whose voice is being heard the loudest and how that bodes for economic growth at home and abroad.  With respect to Chinese markets, no matter how we dice it, enormous amounts of the global economy – and as an extension global risk – are wrapped up in a market that is anything but transparent.  Election season could exacerbate this risk OR a market collapse could impact the outcome of the elections.  While the question of how a collapse in the Chinese market would reverberate is an overwhelming one, we need to seriously consider US business resilience to such an event. 
 
Terrorism, extremism, and technology enabled catastrophic events
 
As has occurred in the past, interest in pulling off major coordinated attacks ahead of elections is likely to rise within extremist organizations possibly with intent to influence the outcome.  While the nature of terror attacks makes it hard to plan for, it is worth the time to assess organizational readiness and resilience to catastrophic attacks in the coming months.  Particular attention should be paid to large events  – especially technology enabled events – that would cause disruptions to critical infrastructure such as electricity, water, food supply, or major logistical hubs. A chaotic election year offers a potentially irresistible stage for those who wish to do catastrophic damage and disrupt major economies.
 
Its not what you know, it’s how you analyze it
 
Our approach to these problems – because they so dramatically impact the analytic outcome – is as important as analyzing the issues themselves. Here are a few thoughts on ways to approach what may be a very touchy political topic within your organization.
 
(1) Choose the most relevant issues
 
A critical examination of strategic issues that may impact your organization shouldn’t be an individual scattershot exercise, nor should it be based on gut instinct.  Take a systematic approach to the risks that are most relevant to your short and medium term business model with other company professionals with complimentary roles.  It may be helpful to draw up a list of company relevant issues and actors that are sensitive to major changes in the US electoral environment – including countries that have already weighed in on US elections, extremist actors looking for a high profile stage or with definable interest in seeing one candidate win over the other, or actors with sizable economic interest at stake.
 
(2) Introduce issues gradually
 
Rather than writing a paper on potential shocks with no previous introduction to the issue, start sensitizing potential strategic issues slowly through other mediums first.  A daily or weekly product is a great place to start introducing issues of concern and to briefly highlight potential risks for the organization. Another method is through one on one discussion with others who may have an overlapping area of responsibility and a different point of view on the subject.  Depending on your organization’s receptiveness, you could also conduct an internal poll on how people in your company view risk associated with these issues – gauging both awareness and internal concern.
 
(3) Consider your bias
 lenses
Consider the organization’s and your own bias about potential outcomes and look for ways to correct for it.  On election-related issues, our biggest blind spot may boil down to our inability to be objective about the candidate field.  Beyond personal feelings about the candidates, US-based risk intelligence analysts are often not used to looking at political risk and geopolitical risk associated with US politics.  As a result, our bias may be higher and analysis more inclined to downplaying potential outcomes than it might be if we were looking at a similar issue in another country. The first step is to be aware of it and willing to challenge your own assumptions.  Then, there are many ways to help us reduce bias, including (shameless plug alert!) some that we will be working through at our July mini-training. 
 
(4) Make sure you’re asking the right question 
 
Too often companies approach geopolitical issues with the immediate impact in mind and if they don’t discern a direct impact, they move on.  But there are serious business continuity disruptions and consequences that may not be immediately apparent with the application of the simple question: How does this impact us?  In Asia for example, secondary and tertiary supply chain risks are acute with so many companies’ supply chains inextricably tied to the region.  So what is the right question?  Is it: How would a Chinese economic crash impact our company?  Or is it rather something else, like: How resilient is our supply chain to a major economic crash in China and beyond?  Or: How many single source suppliers do we have in this region and what are the major shocks we need to be thinking about that could impact our business resilience here?
 
Keep your mind in a strategic place
 
Businesses are so busy doing their business, that, without leaders who are intentional about examining strategic risks, many of these issues go unnoticed until mitigation is no longer an option.  Thought leadership on strategic shocks is a perfect role for risk intelligence professionals.  Regardless of other curve balls this election season throws us, it will pay dividends to get ahead of the issues. Now is the time. Our ability to add value through intelligence and analysis will decline as the elections near and the opportunity for building resilience and mitigation strategy disappears altogether. 

Schengen on shaky ground… Five areas of business impact

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Europe

With the refugee crisis and major problems with extremism, EU countries are moving politically closer to anti-immigration and anti-unity agendas leaving the Schengen agreement on shaky ground.

Here are five areas that will be impacted by a long-term breakdown in the Schengen Zone:

Security: Border controls may not make Europe more secure.  While possibly keeping out would-be bad actors without EU passports, much of the terror threat emanates from citizens within its own borders.  Border closures may also push refugees further into the black market – jeopardizing their safety and increasing demand for human-traffickers throughout Europe (which will in turn increase scrutiny of cargo transported across borders = more delays, LONG delays).  With respect to migrants, build-up of refugees at closed bordersheightens the potential for security incidents at border crossings – already a frequent problem.  In an effort to address the border build-up, last weekend the EU and Turkey reached an agreement to send all refugees and migrants arriving via the Greek Islands back to Turkey, in exchange for monetary support for housing them.  To say its not going well is an understatement: Humanitarian organizations are boycotting the measure as an unrealistic solution that will substantially worsen the lot of refugees fleeing Syria.

Trade: Trade among members of the European Union has grown dramatically since the single market was established in the late 80’s – from €800bn in the early 90’s to €2.8 trillion in 2012, according to the European Commission.  Reinstatement of borders, even temporarily, decreases the volume of trade within EU member countries. Businesses incur substantial financial costs that, over time, may result in job losses and increased prices (with businesses passing increased costs on to consumers).  Additionally, as one of the largest trading blocks in the world, the EU has become an economic powerhouse. A break-up of Schengen could unravel the EU’s major trade agreements and progress on the Transpacific Trade Investment Partnership, should it substantially slow exports, imports and businesses’ ability to create and export product.

Logistics: In the last six months temporary border control measures were introduced by Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, France, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia. This has negatively impacted the transport of goods across borders, slowing supply and distribution channels and raising transportation costs for companies with cross-border supply chains. According to industry estimates, the cost for an hour delay on the border per vehicle is around €55 ($59). The consequences of border delays are even more critical for perishable goods and might include the loss of a whole cargo.  A strike in Calais last summer that led to the closure of the Channel Tunnel could be an indicator of the kind of supply chain disruption that could accompany substantial delays at European borders.

Labor Mobility: According to estimates, 1.7 million Europeans commute across borders daily for work, and trade in labor services has grown considerably with the free travel arrangement within the Schengen zone. Absence of border controls has increased the efficiency potential of labor markets, as Europeans take advantage of employment opportunities in areas and industries outside their home country.  With border controls in place, travel time to work is likely to increase for cross border commuters, and might eventually make working in a neighboring EU country impossible. For companies this wouldincrease recruitment costs and potentially limit access to skilled labor.

Loss of Business: EU experts estimate that the loss of tourism revenues would be substantial. This has already happened in some southern regions of Bavaria, Germany where the country introduced border controls on the Austrian border in September.  Tourism revenues here have dropped 40% since September.   Depending on the outcome of the current EU agreement with Turkey, this may also increase the number of migrants in camps, like Calais and those throughout Greece, where migrants are stuck at border crossings.  In addition to the human toll, this problem has economic ramifications for “host” cities.  In Calais, for example, the city has lost around 40% in trade and tourism revenue since the escalation of the migrant crisis last summer.

Death by 1000 Cuts

Because the EU knows its value, Schengen is unlikely to be officially cancelled anytime soon.  If the bloc does go down, it will be death by a thousand cuts, with each country erecting more border controls based on their own perception of their security and their ability to handle migrants and refugees, etc.  This could lead to a MORE uneven approach to security across countries andfewer mechanisms for oversight and accountability.  And, the bad guys will still probably find a way to slip through.  In the meantime, the EU will need to work hard to regain the public’s confidence in its ability to mitigate problems causing instability, insecurity, and lack of unity over the EU and Schengen.  After all, Europe remains an overwhelmingly safe place to live, visit, and do business.  Businesses, governments, and travelers should keep this front of mind in the coming weeks and months.  To not do so may lead to rash decisions that will only increase political, economic and security risks in the EU.

This post appeared in the Emergent Risk International monthly brief on March 24, 2016.  It is a collaborative piece written by Julia Mitusova and Meredith Wilson for Emergent Risk International.

China: Challenges to Sustainable Growth and Business Implications

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By: Julia Mitusova

China has received a lot of media attention over slowing economic growth, the recent stock market crash and increasing concerns about challenges of doing business in China for foreign companies. So what are the business implications of the slowing economy for foreign investors? What can ensure economic growth in China and benefit investors in the long run?

  • Increasing production costs: A steady increase in labor costs over the past decade makes China less competitive as an outsource destination compared so Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as US neighbor – Mexico. With manufacturing moving from China to Vietnam or Indonesia, where average wages for a factory worker are 3.5 times lower than in China closing production facilities lay offs are increasing.  Increased crime rates, strikes, and labor actions against employers are plausible.
  • Increasing security concerns: From a security perspective, the challenges China is currently facing such as economic slowdown, growing inequality and pollution affecting the quality of life, might result in growing public discontent. While protests in China are not happening on a large scale yet, social unrest due to factory lay offs is increasing. Unless social issues such as growing unemployment are addressed, crime rates are likely to increase and China could become a less safe place for foreign business. 
  • Decline in sales: China’s trade partners such as Brazil, Indonesia, Russia and Australia, among others are impacted by the decline in commodity demand in China. If this trend continues companies operating in the commodity trading and export business that have China as their main partner might want to consider expanding the geography of their business. 

Current Structural Challenges in China

Limited transparency, high debt and significant government intervention – all together are increasing turmoil in the markets in China.

Over the past few years the private sector in China accumulated significant amounts of debt due to low interest rates. While the official debt to GDP ratio in China is 41%, which is much lower than for example, the 103% ratio in the US, concerns arise in connection with the reliability of data provided by the Chinese government; and analysts believe that the real debt in China is significantly higher. Moreover, the Government owns the major banks and corporations in China, thus both lenders and borrowers are state owned.

In an environment where the state plays a dominant role in various areas of the economy and corporate transparency is limited, it becomes challenging to react adequately to market fluctuations. Thus, financial markets become volatile as investors make their decisions based on limited and sometimes unreliable market information.

For companies operating in China this means an increase in overall market risk and is a signal to protect investments, which explains $59 bn capital outflows from China in 2015.

Economic Growth in China and New Opportunities

A rapidly aging population is a growing concern for Asia as a whole and for China in particular. According to estimates, by 2050 35% of the Japanese, Hong Kong and South Korean population will be 65 and over, while this number for China will be around 24%. In 2015 the percentage of elderly people in these countries was 10.6% on average. With growing life expectancy figures and increasing numbers of retirees, the burden of an economically inactive population will have strong impacts on Asian economics. From the perspective of the financial sector, aging population means that long-term financial instruments will be shaping the Asian financial structure in the future.

Productivity which is measured by the total productivity factor (TPF) is also an important variable to follow in the context of China’s economic growth. The TPF measures the efficiency of labor and capital in a country. China’s growth since the 1990s has been primarily due to the increase of the work force size and growth of capital investment; according to estimates productivity increased by just 1.5% per year between 1997 and 2012. In the long term, low TPF levels won’t be sufficient to drive sustainable economic growth.

For companies operating in China, increasing capital efficiency and labor productivity by taking advantage of innovative technologies is critical, in order to remain competitive globally. While the slowing economy presents challenges, as China is shifting focus to increasing consumption, new opportunities will emerge in other sectors. For example, industries like entertainment, travel and education will continue to grow despite the general economic slowdown.

In the long run however economic growth in China will still require serious structural reforms. The world is waiting to see if China is up to the task.

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