Seven Deadly Sins of Private Sector Intelligence

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The craft of intelligence is part art and part science. As the world grows smaller, through technology and the ability to virtually reach across the globe in seconds, our ethics, tradecraft and tools risk becoming more controversial. As private sector intelligence professionals, our work should not be as fraught as that of our government counterparts – but at times it can be – particularly when our integrity is on the line. This is one of the reasons we always recommend that our clients develop an ethics policy within their intelligence organization. These guidelines should dictate what is allowable and what is not – and what requires sign off from other authorities within the company. With that, and some recent private and public sector intelligence snafu’s in mind, we created a list of seven deadly sins of the private sector intelligence professional to help guide some of these ethics considerations.

Collection of non-public intelligence or information on a competitor company

 Despite Hollywood depictions, it is generally illegal in the US to steal non-public information from a company – especially intellectual property, trade secrets, patents or new products. But it seems like at least once per year a company shows up in the press, in trouble because they asked one of their business intelligence or security intelligence functions to do just that. Think of it this way, the US government frequently prosecutes foreign nationals for engaging in these sorts of behaviors. They are no less illegal for Americans, and when it does happen it can impact a company’s stock price, reputation and legal standing. And, for those of us in private sector intelligence, it unfortunately misrepresents the entire professional field, making it that much harder to professionalize the role.

Misrepresenting oneself online or in-person

 Similarly, intelligence professionals sometimes crossover from their days of covert operations in the government, unaware that this same practice is generally ethically prohibited within their companies, and in some cases – also against the law. In 2014 Sea World representatives admitted that employees had gone undercover to spy on activist groups concerned about the company’s treatment of killer whales. Although it was never made clear who gave the order to do this, the company’s already embattled market value dropped further (it was already down over intense pressure from activists), and their reputation was further damaged by the revelation. In the aftermath, the company changed their policies to disallow such actions and hired a consultant to audit the company’s security practices.

 There are plenty more examples of companies ending up in trouble for this type of behavior over the years – and as such – many company’s policies prohibit this type of behavior. Even when a policy doesn’t prohibit it – in some cases misrepresenting oneself can lead to charges of fraud or entrapment.

Producing intelligence with the end result already decided or framing intelligence to support a particular point of view (AKA cherry-picking)

 Intelligence analysis will undermine its purpose if the analyst writes the report to suit their particular point of view – or that of a decision-maker. While we sometimes “begin with the end in mind,” looking for evidence that only supports a particular point of view is a recipe for failure when it comes to security and risk. Consider the idea of only collecting intelligence on attacks against your company if they were perpetrated by a particular type of extremist, or people from a particular ethnic group. The end result would be an intelligence failure when we failed to account for the possibility of an attack by a repeat offender or a different type of extremist.

Failing to look for disconfirming information

Sometimes one-sided analysis is not intentional, but rather is the fault of an unintentional failure to seek out information that disproves a theory. This can be especially hazardous when analyzing cause and effect relationships that appear on the surface to be obviously explained. In 2012, petty shoplifting crime in the city of Dallas decreased by a whopping 75 percent. The result of a focused and expanded police presence, right? The hiring and academy graduation of more officers? No, a 2012 change in police policy made it extremely difficult for store owners to report petty theft. In fact, statistical anomalies are often the product of a change in reporting policy. A quick look at data on rape in Sweden tells a similar story. The data (see chart below) shows a sharp increase in rape reports starting in 2005. This increase and the resultant numbers have been misattributed to various factors but a quick look at the information provided by the Swedish government provides additional context, explaining that the definition of rape has changed over time. The increase is in fact due to a change in reporting requirements, including one which requires that every instance of rape – including marital rape, be counted separately. So, if a woman reports that she was raped once a night for a year – that counts as 365 times. But if the correlation was made that the rise in numbers correlates with the arrival of more refugees (it actually doesn’t) and the analyst failed to look for disconfirming information – they could be unintentionally passing on misinformation to decision or policymakers.

Failing to conduct thorough research and reach an accurate analysis in an effort to meet a tight deadline

 We have all been there. Our decision-makers have a meeting scheduled for 9:00 AM tomorrow and must plot strategy for handling a major crisis. It is now 4:00 PM. And we really want to go home at five. The majority of private sector intelligence professionals are generalists, meaning that we alternate from topic to topic and region to region on a daily basis. Rarely do we have the luxury of hovering over one area long enough to develop a deep, sustained expertise in any one specific account. However, if we are going to do our craft justice and bring real value to our organizations, we must put the time and focus into our research required to ensure that we are providing our consumers with a fully-formed, comprehensive review of all key facts, and that our analysis takes all of this critical information into account. Reaching sound, valuable conclusions is, simply put, our craft. 

Changing an analytic judgment to suit the demands of a policymaker or decision-maker

While there are moments in one’s career when it might appear wise to align with the preconceived views of our key decision-maker/s, especially when the key decision-maker in question holds the key to our professional advancement, history is replete with examples that prove just the opposite. When tempted to fall into this trap, we want to ask ourselves one question. Do we want to say what those around us want to hear, or do we want to provide wise counsel that positively impacts our organization, potentially improves decisions and outcomes, and leads to improving our security or enhancing our bottom line? A momentary decision to change analysis based on pressure from a policy-maker may seem attractive, but the bad legacy and damage to integrity that it leaves for the analyst – and potentially the entire company – is never worth it.

Refusing to consider opposing arguments, even when new evidence comes to light

 None of us can completely escape our biases, human nature being what it is. But when we allow our biases to prohibit us from hearing other points of view, or even more dangerously, prevent us from taking into account new and valuable evidence, we are simply not doing our job. The temptation to defend our analysis without full consideration of the other side of the story – is usually more about our ego than the strength of our analysis. There is always another side to every story, and in most cases both sides carry a degree of truth as seen from a different perspective.  Maintaining objectivity and looking at a problem from every angle is possibly the single most crucial skill required to deliver accurate and impactful analysis.

Conclusion: Intelligence without integrity is a recipe for disaster

Intelligence without ethical codes of conduct, regulatory roadmaps and oversight too often leads to abuse of power and poor decision making, based on bad information obtained by unethical means. In extreme cases, like the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, it can also lead to unnecessary loss of life. While these problems have historically been more prevalent in government, the growth of the intelligence in the private sector will, unfortunately, bring with it more problems with unethical conduct if these types of ground rules are not established and adhered to within our organizations.

Meredith Wilson is the CEO of Emergent Risk International (ERI) and Brady Roberts is the Director for Client Relations. ERI specializes in the building private sector intelligence functions, training, and providing high value intelligence for private sector organizations.

Dashboard of the Week: Energy Market Trends and The Push for Renewables

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With projections of a record decline in global energy demand and emissions this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this week’s dashboard examines trends in the global energy market, historic data on emissions during global recessions and the status of the turn to renewable energy sources. The pandemic is impacting energy demand, use and policies that could have implications for future emissions and consumption trends.

Why this Matters: The changing energy landscape will have an impact on companies’ operations and supply chains, as certain events like the pandemic coupled with government-driven regulations force businesses and consumers to adapt to new sources of energy. The pandemic is pushing some countries like the European Union to opt for “green” recovery plans that could increase the turn to renewables, while others like the US, China and India are opting for environmental rollbacks that could disrupt efforts to phase out fossil fuels and higher emitting energy sources like coal. The uneven regulatory landscape could complicate the operations of key industries like energy, manufacturing and transportation around the world. Policy shifts could also drive new waves of activism targeting governments, corporations and other stakeholders to demand new policies to address climate change.
The following dashboard features recent and historical trends that will help to understand the future of the global energy market and implications for businesses around the world. The dashboard includes sections on oil prices, historical data, market factors, forecast trends and risk factors.

(Situation Room™ Clients can find the full dashboard and analysis here.

2019 and the Rise of Technology-Enabled Nationalism

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Its worth noting, 2018 could’ve been much worse. We careened into the year smarting from a horrendous hurricane season – one of the most expensive in US history – with the US President and Kim Jong Un hurling literal nuclear twitter threats at each other. So before we get too pessimistic, let’s be thankful for small miracles (and military restraint). Nonetheless, beneath those big big-ticket stories, a lot happened that’s worth considering as we look ahead to 2019.

Over the last several weeks, as we built our 2019 outlook and considered 2018 in retrospect, the two words that most resonated were nationalism and technology. These two concepts are sending us into 2019 with a thorny set of problems to solve. And they are changing the world – literally – faster than we can account for it. And so, it is through consideration of these concepts that we should also think about what they mean for the future. And before we lament over the major downsides of what is happening (because we are risk managers after all), it’s imperative that we recognize that no matter which side of these debates we sit on – the world is changing, mostly, because the old systems, as most seem to agree, were broken. And thus, new ideas and new solutions are needed.

Growing Nationalism

Over the past several years, a tide of nationalism has risen across much of the globe. Elections in Europe have ushered in new, far right, populist administrations in countries such as Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland. These wins at the polls reflect electorates that have grown increasingly skeptical of the benefits to European Union membership and weary of the migrant populations that have entered their borders – migrants fleeing war, starvation and economic inequality. Perceived as stealing jobs, draining welfare systems, altering culture and demographics, and posing threats to every day security. Similar emotions have emerged in the United States, where the administration has campaigned upon, whether founded or unfounded, concerns over insecure borders and perceived risk of violent crime and terrorism by illegal immigrants. In China, a general populace whose information consumption is closely controlled and curated, has experienced spikes in patriotic, nationalist sentiment, driven by government-influenced messaging suggesting the Western world, and especially the United States, has violated its sovereign rights and taken aim at crippling its economy to prevent it inevitable ascension and historic return to leading global superpower. In Brazil, the country’s newly seated president has rejected United Nations initiatives such as the Migration Pact, threatened rights of its indigenous peoples, talked of nationalizing key industries and stirred international concern over his admitted nostalgia for past periods of military rule.

While fully acknowledging that there is a fine balance between being a borderless country and being completely closed to the outside world (ala North Korea) and that there are those who view nationalism as a means of giving citizens more power to affect the trajectory of their own country’s future; the level of nationalism currently facing the world has necessarily also lowered the world’s ability to avoid international conflict and complicated international commerce. This perspective is encouraging countries to retreat into their own borders; attempting to protect “a way of life” by protecting against outside influences – whether through tariffs, physical and monetary barriers, immigration, rhetoric and/or psychological warfare against “the other.” The unintended consequence for business is that this stymies growth, making it increasingly difficult to steer a prosperous global enterprise that holds increasing (and at times, contradictory) regulatory requirements, financial burdens and shareholder expectations. The movement has also created suspicion of brands associated with one country or another, driving away potential customers and creating new regulatory hurdles.

While there is no question that trade imbalances and considerations of economic espionage needed addressing, in 2018, new trade barriers resulted in a major re-order of global trade. The abrupt – and at times non-sensical – changes increased costs to business around the globe, threatened corporate brand and reputation and by the end of the year pushed the global economy into a downward spin that economists increasingly worry could worsen in China and the US – dragging much of the rest of the world down with them. 

But it’s the trust factor that is perhaps most concerning. Suspicions over spying, arrests of company executives and an increasingly pervasive sense of distrust between countries has, and will continue to, filter down to the corporate and even working level between international employees. This is not only true of US and Chinese colleagues, but also US and Russian colleagues and, as more nationalism and as protectionism grows, this may soon extend even to countries that we’ve traditionally treated as allies like Canada and Germany.

Rising nationalism hasn’t just slowed commerce, it’s led to an almost across the board increase in hate crime in the West; from the United States and Canada to Europe. In the US, hate crime targeting ethnic and racial minorities has risen steadily in the last four years with other categories of hate crime remaining relatively flat. The same is true of the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland – and if we looked deeply enough – likely nearly every other country in Western Europe.

Technology enabled bias and nationalism

Technology has changed our lives, in most ways for the better, yet has lost some of its luster to weary populations who increasingly see it as a tool to manipulate unsuspecting users – rather than as one that improves lives and livelihoods. The truth of technology innovation perhaps lies in how you look at it; but in the past several years especially, technology has been blamed for increasing polarization around the world; or more specifically for how it has come to change the lens through which we view the world, and perhaps dominate our lives. The way we work, play, consume information and educate (or mis-educate) ourselves have all changed. Social media echo chambers; the idea that people are attracted to the posts of social media contacts, pundits and content that validate and confirm narrow perspectives on unknown groups, cultures or points of view, have been blamed for forging stark societal divisions, lowering tolerance of competing ideas and consideration or pursuit of facts – driving – though certainly not causing the nationalist/populist trend overtaking much of the world. Extensive government-sponsored disinformation campaigns, launched by Russia against targets across the globe and designed to breed discontent and confusion – and skepticism over alleged, wrongful acts by the Russian government; launched by China in the West to promote Chinese economic initiatives and downplay its risks to competitors; and launched by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stifle and threaten opposition voices have all put today’s media – especially social media – in the crosshairs of blame for rising intolerance, societal retreatism and growing toxicity in our relations and discourse.
That is the focus right now. But we need to be cautious not to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. From Facebook to Twitter to encrypted messaging platforms to the news media, the worst of the worst stories rise to the top and become the grievance clause for everything we see that is distressing in the world – particularly as it pertains to technology. At the same time, the sheer amount of economic benefit that these platforms have created for small business, entrepreneurs, and minority owned businesses, not to mention larger businesses, is grossly under-appreciated.
So, what do these two trends over 2018 mean for the year to come?

First, we don’t expect to see nationalist governments going away or changing their views any time soon. Retreatism, both at the government and the societal level, is going to be a continued theme in 2019, and it’s going to continue to alter trade patterns, impact diplomacy and, unfortunately, continue to drive increases in xenophobic if not hateful discourse for the near term. Companies will need to continue to consider longer term strategies for protecting revenue, planning for international supply chain flexibility and continuity while considering ways to (legally) overcome regulatory schemes designed to advantage domestic interests over foreign providers. Technology companies, and especially social media platforms, will need not only to plan for tighter regulations on data housing, sources of investment capital and import/export controls, but will also suffer increased pressure to moderate user content and serve as a policing mechanism, for purposes that may both serve the public good and leave companies exposed to accusations of supporting maligned efforts to control populaces and suppress opposition.

Those choosing to take their ideals to the extreme such as has been the case in the US and Europe in 2018; in the worst of cases committing acts of violence in belief they promote their cause, will continue to challenge law enforcement and security organizations, forcing them to shift resources, intelligence collection strategies and delicately consider political and reputational ramifications of the cases they may be forced to pursue and arrests they may make. And in this age where corporate leaders have increasingly been looked to by the consuming public as potential sources of moral leadership – a trend in business unlike any we can recall over the course of history – executives will be challenged to balance expectations of growth with the ideological demands of customers, not to mention their own employees.

What might alter these trends? In our view, it will most likely be pain in the pocketbook or in a worse scenario, heightened conflict between states or within states that causes us to rethink our perspectives on our common humanity. Continued stalls in trade that ultimately lead to a rise in unemployment, persistent losses in stock value and signs (or onslaught) of recession will most likely prove the pressures that force a political re-think – particularly as countries that remain more open attract more foreign direct investment, more entrepreneurs and more innovation. And while the trade war will have ups and downs in the first half of 2019, a real shift back towards a more open and less protectionist world order will likely require the experience of a compounding series of negative consequences that pile up and weigh down institutions before the current trajectory re-orients.

But while polarization may be here to stay for a while, we’ll all be charged with finding ways break down barriers, build bridges and seek a common, less unequal prosperity, despite circumstances. And those that do stand much to gain. No, it’s definitely not all doom and gloom out there, but we do believe that 2019 is going to prove an interesting, if not challenging year. But challenge always comes with opportunity, forcing us to bring our A game. This year, we’ll all need to bring our best selves to our work each day, force ourselves to think in new ways, tackle new challenges and pursue creative and innovative solutions to what are, in many ways’ old problems, but with a very new twist.

Candid Thoughts on US Leadership in the World

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There’s an elephant in the room. And its past time to let it out.

Those of you who’ve met ERI’s leadership and analyst cadre probably recognized right away that we, like most intelligence professionals, are rather opinionated individuals, and as individuals, we’re rather comfortable speaking our minds in private settings. Divergent in opinion as we often are (which we see as a strength of our business and analysis), we take exceptional pride in training our analysts – and other companies’ analysts – to work diligently to ensure that analysis is anything but opinion. There is, after all, a sharp division between editorial and analysis – something that is not always immediately understood by those new to the field. Our product is intelligence analysis. By definition, analysis is as objective as humanly possible. It should consider only facts, trends and potential outcomes. It does not serve a specific agenda, other than to support business and executive decision-making with the best and most relevant information possible. In hope that its consideration leads to decisions that produce the most effective outcomes possible. That is the role of proper analysis. These premises underpin our tradecraft.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that we find it challenging to suggest that we, as intelligence analysts, need to explore head-on whether the ship that is the world’s superpower has lost its leadership heading. And if so, what have been the impacts and how might we predict future outcomes. (Elephant exits the room.) Its past time to look at this situation objectively, accounting for bias (yes, we are ALL biased) and approaching our tradecraft as the expert analysts we are. As for what follows, agree or disagree. Or ask more questions. This is not intended as political commentary, but it is also not analysis. Rather, its thought. Or better yet, a challenge to all of us to think beyond our politics – whatever they are. To explore whether bias is creeping into our own work when we set to with our cup of coffee and keyboard each morning. How would we treat this situation as a US company? Would we/ or do we treat it differently as an organization outside the US?

Leadership Shifts

Since taking office, the administration has engineered a marked shift in US leadership. A move away from accepted norms and redlines of political power, changes in perceptions and dealings with US allied and non-allied countries has brought us to a new and very different foreign policy than the US has followed under previous leaders. And not all of it has been a negative change, in fact there is an argument to be made that some of these changes were badly needed to break stalemates over old issues. But, the president of the world’s current superpower has also been accused of opening himself up to the prospect of blackmail by adversarial foreign powers, spoken derisively of perceived political challengers on both sides of the aisle, engaged in name-calling with foreign leaders and alternatively praised authoritarian rulers while speaking, at times wistfully, of the authoritarian controls they enjoy. Where diplomacy and backroom discussions between the US and world leaders previously led to restraint from human rights abuses – or at least significantly lower profile abuses – these discussions, or perhaps lack of those discussions and diplomacy, now seems to have led us to a place of emboldened dictatorial behavior. Does this lie in the more transactional approach of current US leadership? Where previously US foreign policy and aid money was attached to more conditionals and more diplomacy, today it appears less interventionist and attached to only a few, inconsistent ideologies.

Over the course of its post- World War II reign as one of the world’s two superpowers – and as the only superpower in the post-Soviet world order since the 1990’s, embracingly or reluctantly or both, the US was often been viewed as the world’s police force and center of gravity for good governance. Successfully and unsuccessfully, the nation has been a key provider of aid, it has (yes, selectively) contained dictators, spoken out against human rights abuses and borne an overly proportional role in defense alliances such as NATO. Its domestic market has buoyed the global economy and its role in advent of the internet has connected industries, academia and people from major population centers to far flung rural corners of developing nations, bringing to bear today’s new, data-driven industrial revolution. As a result, foreign leaders have often been forced to consider consequences of their actions, whether against their own population or their neighbors. The US could not be everywhere at once, nor did every malicious action interfere directly with US interests. But consequences it could impose were at least a consideration, thanks to US interventionist policy that projected hard and soft power far beyond US borders.

Today, how serious are these considerations by foreign leaders? Are they still a serious concern that impose a deterrent effect? And perhaps, even if we disregard a direct effect, how do these events – seemingly ordered by governments that are often our business and government partners in various endeavors – impact our investments? Our ability to continue to work in these countries, with these government partners? Will this new world order endanger our personnel by giving them less protection from corrupt governments and security forces?

Let’s simply take a look at some of the facts.

  • In March, Russia resumed targeted assassinations of opponents in the UK, when alleged Russian GRU officers poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. The last time Russia committed such an attack was in 2006, while the US government and populace was consumed by a global war on terror and deeply committed to ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • In the last year, China has approximately doubled the size of internment camps where it incarcerates its ethnic Uighur population in effort to conduct “re-education,” attempting to convert Chinese Muslims from Islam to atheism and Chinese Communist Party-endorsed values.
  • Earlier this month, Meng Hongwei, president of Interpol and Chinese citizen, returned to China and has since disappeared. Meng’s disappearance, though suspected to be the result of ongoing corruption investigations against Chinese officials, draws a bright spotlight on China’s secret detention program, as used in the case of China’s most internationally visible law enforcement official. Meng’s detention follows a four-month detention of high-profile Chinese actress Fan Bingbing on tax evasion allegations.
  • In early October, Saudi journalist and prominent critic of the ruling family Jamal Kashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and was killed by Saudi officials. The killing, responsibility for which has been not-so-deftly deflected by Saudi rulers, comes during a period when US-Saudi relations have been at least as close as ever.
  • In the Middle East, Asia and Africa, dictatorial leaders have increased their war on journalists and press outlets, decrying news that portrays them in a negative light as “fake,” and in many cases jailing them or worse.
  • Last week in Nigeria, the Nigerian military posted a video of the US President discussing shooting people on the border who would throw rocks at US border patrol agencies. The video was in answer to criticism over the military’s decision on Monday of that week to fire on Shiite protesters in the capital, killing six.
  • Meanwhile, countries across Europe – the UK, Germany, Poland, Sweden and others – are experiencing a rise in influence of far right-wing political groups, activists and extremists that are gaining political ground through parliamentary seats won through elections. Much of the recent rise of nationalism across Europe has correlated to the rise of similar sentiment in the US, suggesting at minimum a tangential relationship.

Are these actions the result of foreign leaders’ perception of changed US leadership? Or would they have happened anyway? If they are, how does this change our assessment or prediction of future foreign leadership decisions and resulting risks to our organizations? While there was a time organizations may have said “that has nothing to do with us,” most companies can say that no more. Importantly, most don’t want to. If the Khashoggi case illuminated anything for the business world – it was the tangible political and financial risk associated with gross human rights violations – even when those organizations have no direct involvement and would never sanction such actions.

So, is the world today really experiencing more of an “each to their own” climate than it has in recent history? And how much of that is down to changes in US leadership? Historian Robert Kagan calls this the international “jungle.” The world before the “liberal world order” – pre-World War II. A world where leadership based on good governance is absent and strongmen prevail. If the US no longer wants to take on that leadership role, who takes it up? Or do we return to the era of every nation for themselves? And if so, how does that change the boundaries of countries behavior and its impact on our people and organizations?

As we have previously posited, when writing on domestic politics, it is sometimes useful to distance oneself from the most polarizing aspects of the issue – in this case, that often means speaking less directly about polarizing personalities – whose mention can distract us from the information and analysis we need to provide to decision makers. But in this new international order – with US decision-making less predictable and in some cases more immediately impactful on other global leaders decisions its important to ask what we may be leaving out of our analysis – and to chance – if we are tiptoeing around the topic or ignoring it altogether. If it wasn’t our country, would we leave it out of our analysis as a major data point? How do we approach it with as little bias as possible? How do we look objectively at an administration that virtually no one on the planet is ambivalent about?

It’s a tough nut to crack, and we suggest doing it with structured thinking, analytic tools that can help you understand your own bias and with counterparts with perspectives that differ markedly from your own. But to leave these questions unanswered is to create a serious blind spot for the future of our organization and the world.

Meredith Wilson and Brady Roberts are the CEO and COO of Emergent Risk International, respectively.

Calling all interns!!!

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Intelligence Analysis Intern

Emergent Risk International is hiring interns! ERI is a Dallas based risk and intelligence advisory firm. Our business is assisting companies in utilizing intelligence and analysis to better drive their business. We focus on three primary activities:

  • Assessment and Analysis: We provide bespoke geopolitical and threat intelligence products to address issues of concern to our clients. These products range from those developed for regular distribution to in-depth new market entry assessments.
  • Training: We train intelligence analysts to provide intelligence analysis in a business environment focusing on tradecraft and tools that drive more efficient and effective analysis. We offer a range of in-house and open trainings to address specific levels of experience and need.
  • Consulting: We help companies develop and improve their intelligence programs, providing end-to-end support; from assessing needs and providing analysis to recruiting and hiring highly qualified candidates.

Intelligence Analysis Interns will be responsible for helping ERI with a range of research, technology, analytic and administrative tasks to better serve its clients. Interns will contribute to research projects, products and services and will have a role in developing new products for the company.

Primary responsibilities:

  • Assist analysts by providing structured country research on issues of importance to ERI clients
  • Assist in building data visualizations and social media posts
  • Assist in developing business leads
  • Develop and maintain an awareness of relevant global issues impacting ERI’s primary client base
  • Administrative tasks as necessary

Remuneration: This role will be unpaid and run from the beginning of October through December (candidates interested in continuing through the spring semester will also be considered). Interns will receive intelligence analysis training, start-up experience and exposure to other critical professional skill sets. This internship can also be taken on for course credit with the permission of a candidates’ institution. Successful candidates will work out of our offices in downtown Dallas 15-20 hours per week. Some exceptional candidates may be considered for remote work.

Experience: The right candidate will possess most or all of the following qualifications:

  • Excellent writing skills
  • In final year of undergrad or has finished BA/BS degree
  • Foreign language capability
  • International relations, political economy, economics, development, political science or other related fields of study are preferred
  • Working knowledge of information technology, social media and tech related trends
  • Experience living or studying abroad
  • Strong academic record
  • Self-motivated and able to manage time effectively
  • Strong work ethic and commitment

Application Deadline is September 30. Please send your resume, cover letter, and a recent writing sample to:

The Geopolitics – Cyber Nexus

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We live in a world exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.

Carl Sagan

When I talk to students or my interns about careers, one thing I tell them all: they must possess an above average understanding of cyber and technology. Inability to process the meaning and implications of technology on the geopolitical landscape will make it impossible to grasp the future trajectory of global security, inter-state relations, economics, politics and security.

For years, tech oriented analysts warned of quickening convergence between cyberthreats and traditional security threats – be it crime or the convergence of geopolitics, war, diplomacy and cyber warfare. Today, cyber and physical threats are becoming indivisible. Consider the rise of ISIS – which would not have taken shape as quickly or broadly without the internet – and especially social media. The protests of the Arab Spring, which, aided by social media, rose faster and pushed the Middle East further in a shorter time frame than anyone would’ve thought possible. And criminality, from human trafficking to drug smuggling to the most basic of crime: credit card fraud. You are more likely to have someone steal your credit card information virtually (or purchase it from a dark web site), than you are to be mugged on the street.

Cyberwarfare and technology form a major facet of the strategy of state and non-state actors. “Cyber” is nothing more than another tool used by a range of geopolitical and criminal actors to influence an outcome by force. When we discuss North Korea, for example, most reporting highlights developments in its missile program and the threat of traditional war. Much less is said about covert cyberwarfare that has purportedly been aimed at North Korea’s nuclear program for several years now. Even less is said of North Korea’s cyber capability and the attacks it has reportedly carried out against governments and major multi-national companies. Or the country’s purported role in the WannaCry virus that surfaced earlier this year, fashioned out of leaked CIA cybertools. None of this is a secret, but it is repeatedly left out of geopolitical analysis that examines how scenarios between North Korea and the rest of the world might unfold.

We cannot credibly assess future scenarios without taking the cyber capabilities of the actors – state or non-state – into account. Likewise – it is increasingly hard to do the opposite as well. That is, credible cyberthreat analysis cannot be undertaken without consideration of the geopolitical and security aims of the actor. Is the attack part of a broader strategy to attack our country or organization? Is it being carried out by a state or non-state actor? Is there a motive that stretches beyond money? Who are they connected to? And yet, we continue to separate our analysis into the cyber and the non-cyber – almost guaranteeing that we are not appreciating the whole picture.

Ukraine is the most obvious example of how cyberwarfare has become an integrated part of political and conflict strategy. Its become a virtual blueprint for what modern hybrid warfare looks like. It is the future of conflict, but it remains relatively unappreciated outside of a few well-informed circles of the geopolitical and cyber community. The Petya “not Petya” attacks in late June are one of the most recent examples. While ground warfare continues in and near separatist controlled Ukraine, an ongoing disinformation campaign has persisted for years. And critical infrastructure has been hit repeatedly, not by bombs (though that has also happened), but by cyberattacks. The Petya attack – while not spreading as far as WannaCry – impacted trains, airports, banks, electricity and several other types of critical infrastructure simultaneously. To that point – simultaneous attack of several types of critical infrastructure had not been accomplished by a malicious cyber actor, ever. The attack, disguised as an accounting software update, which was then disguised as a ransomware attack was actually created to wipe out hard drives, with no recovery. In addition to taking critical infrastructure of the intended recipient offline; it spread to global business, bringing supply chains and logistics to a grinding halt. Many affected businesses still have not fully recovered and will suffer significant losses from the recovery expense for Q2 this year.

While the probable state actor was identified quickly, given that Ukraine has suffered virtually non-stop cyber attacks for the past four years, it may have taken longer to make this connection had the attack targeted a country or company with a less clear cut adversary, potentially making mitigation and defensive measures harder to implement.

In order for us to improve the way we understand the world we have to better understand those things that may lie outside our expertise or comfort zone. Facebook’s Head of Global Security, Alex Stamos, made a similar point to the cyber community at the 20th Anniversary of Black Hat, an annual conference dedicated to hacking. In Stamos’ words, the hacking community has to become more diverse and inclusive. This is not just for diversity’s sake, but in order to better understand the implications of hacking, who it harms and how it harms them. It is estimated that the world will need around 2 million more cybersecurity experts in the next two years alone. Meanwhile, academics, intelligence professionals, business leaders – and especially governments – need to get much smarter about cyber, rather than dismissing it. Until we do, our analysis will be incomplete.

Disinformation is changing the way we view the world

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  •  Disinformation is proliferating and intensifying threats, seen and unseen.
  • False narratives propagated by state and non-state actors utilizing disinformation can ruin corporate and personal reputations, threaten business continuity, cause or intensify conflict and drive deep ideological fault lines.
  • A recent study of computer generated propaganda and disinformation revealed that disinformation is having a strong impact on public opinion in some countries.
  • A lack of public understanding of the depth and sophistication of disinformation operations is leaving governments, organizations, and individuals vulnerable to cybercrime and false narratives that undermine sound decision-making.
  • Tools, information, and counter-measures are emerging, but education is the most effective tool we have against disinformation.

Back in January, not long after the new administration took office, Starbucks made a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees. The move quickly became a political issue with folks on one side applauding the effort, and on the other, angry about it.

What drove some of the anger however, was, at best, misinformation (unintentionally misleading info), and possibly disinformation (intentionally misleading with a goal to manipulate public opinion/ perceptions), via several viral memes. One of the most visible memes said: “Hey Starbucks, instead of hiring 10,000 refugees, why don’t you hire 10,000 veterans?” But here’s the thing: Starbucks has had a goal to hire 10,000 veterans through their very successful military partners program since 2013. And while there were other factors at play too, the disinformation amplified the issue, which quickly lodged itself in a partisan fault line. Starbucks handled the issue, in part, by drawing attention to their long running veteran’s program. In addition, veterans who work with Starbucks came to their defense. But the story is illustrative of a growing problem. Fake news and disinformation travel at the speed of a text message or a twitter post and its impact can damage reputations – and worse – catalyze security and major geopolitical events.

As we’ve highlighted in a previous article, disinformation is NOT new. But it is an increasingly potent force driving public opinion or catalyzing crises amplified by its use with other mediums like social media, malware and increasingly popular alternate media outlets. Technology, speed and open access to low cost tools to disseminate information instantly and globally allow anyone: state and non-state actors, politicians, companies and ordinary people to disseminate and amplify disinformation with the right combination of tools.

Disinformation is shaping public opinion

A new study from Oxford University discusses how technology and social media contribute to the spread of disinformation and propaganda. The Computational Propaganda Research Project, found that propaganda and disinformation spread via social media is being utilized in multiple countries around the world to successfully shape public opinion on political issues, especially related to referendums and elections. Moreover, it found that highly automated social media accounts (also known as “bots”) were responsible for as much as 45% of all Twitter traffic in some countries. The study took a look at recent events in Canada, Russia, Brazil, China, the US and several others to understand the impact of social media – especially automated social media, on public opinion. Particularly interesting findings from the paper included:In Brazil “bot networks and other forms of computational propaganda were active in the 2014 presidential election, the constitutional crisis, and the impeachment process.” These included “highly automated accounts supporting and attacking political figures, debate issues such as corruption, and encouraging protest movements.”

  • In the US, “Twitter bots … reached highly influential network positions within retweet networks during the 2016 US election. The botnet associated with Trump-related hashtags was 3 times larger than the botnet associated with Clinton-related hashtags.”
  • In Russia, over 45% of all social media activity is generated by bot nets. Nearby “Ukraine is the frontline of experimentation in computational propaganda, with active campaigns of engagement between Russian botnets, Ukraine nationalist botnets, and botnets from civil society groups”

In simple terms, bots are being utilized to pump out information, usually false and misleading, at alarmingly high numbers in some countries. The use of bots to increase the visibility of disinformation across the internet plays into several biases including availability bias and confirmation bias, and has proven highly effective at shaping public opinion. That impact affects everything from referendums and elections, to social and political stability, to consumer brand preferences, to whom we trust online with sensitive information, to our reputation and security.

Disinformation is driving geopolitical events

Disinformation has the potential to catalyze diplomatic tensions into much larger geo-political situations. Particularly in countries where hair-trigger response to threats are common (Israel/Palestine, North Korea, South Korea, etc), disinformation at the right tempo and time could touch off a major conflict before there is time to set the record straight. Two recent examples include an article in a Bahrain newspaper – planted disinformation that catalyzed the still-festering Qatar blockade and a fake article about Israel and Pakistan.

In Bahrain, the offending article may have been a catalyst (and a convenient excuse) for GCC countries to cut-off diplomatic relationships with Qatar, though it was by no means the cause of the dispute. The crisis has created expensive logistical problems for businesses in the region and substantially complicated transnational relationships across the Gulf, US regional relationships and counter-terrorism efforts there.

In another recent incident, the Pakistani Foreign Minister tweeted a nuclear threat at Israel after reading a fake news piece on Israel’s response to reports that Pakistan was getting involved in Syria.

Disinformation is driving real world security events

Disinformation, misinformation, and outright fake news are causing real world security problems. Most people will now be familiar with the fabricated news story that circulated in the final days of the election about a certain candidate running nefarious activities out of the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, Comet Ping Pong. The fake story, which originated on Twitter and quickly spread to Reddit, back to Twitter and on Facebook, became the basis for a real world security event when a man named Edgar Welch showed up at the Pizzaria with a rifle in hand. Only then did he discover that the restaurant didn’t HAVE a basement, let alone any politicians involved in human trafficking there.

Long before the election, similar fake stories were generated in an attempt to create more panic over the Ebola crisis, Ferguson and a completely made up event about a chemical plant, owned by Colombian Chemicals, exploding in Louisiana on 9/11.

The Colombian Chemicals case, in particular, demonstrated how such a hoax can cause disruption to a company, local emergency services and propagate disinformation through the use of botnets (though this particular attempt was not as successful as the perpetrators intended).

These cases show obvious links between disinformation and the actual event, but more cases can undoubtedly be found by digging into the annals of radicalization. Cases exist across the political and ideological spectrum highlighting the selective disinformation and propaganda that radicalized individuals have consumed in the process of becoming radicalized.

Disinformation can lead to major IT security threats

Malicious links are often found in hyper-partisan click-bait publications that trade in fake news, disinformation, hyperbolic and polarizing headlines or advertisements created by botnets. In a recent case, a Defense Department employee clicked on a link about vacation packages tailored to his interests in his twitter feed. This link downloaded malware that allowed a server in Russia to take control of his computer and Twitter account. That same malware was sent to at least 10,000 DoD employees.

Like phishing attacks, these campaigns trick users into clicking on them, based on a sense of trust in the friend who shared the post, or the targeted nature of the information which is based on their specific social media behavior. According to government sources, Twitter has the most malicious links embedded in disinformation and other types of posts due to the large amount of botnets active on the site and sharing the information at a high volume. The problem has also been identified in smaller volume on Facebook, which has been taking public steps to address disinformation and fake news proliferating on the site.

Disinformation may be driving some of your most important decisions

Distinguishing between what is real and what is fake is getting more difficult. Even more worrying is that gray area in between where information is intentionally altered, taken out of context, or twisted to support a particular narrative. Over-time these misconceptions become embedded in political discourse and become part of our basic assumptions. This drives poor decision-making and in the extreme; dangerous rhetoric that dehumanizes and encourages violence against people who do not agree with a particular point of view. Whether it is viral memes suggesting that police officers are violent or media outlets that portray peaceful protests as being carried out by “violent criminals.” Disinformation and propaganda, in extreme scenarios fed numerous genocides that took place during the 20th century, whether religious, ethnically, or politically driven.

In a less dramatic – but worrying – scenario, Russia has targeted multiple demographics in the US including US military personnel, through the use of fake “patriotic” websites and Facebook groups that plant disinformation and fake news to influence their behavior and loyalties.

In aggregate, continued exposure to disinformation affects consequential decisions, from split second battlefield decisions to major policy initiatives fed by hyper-partisan narratives. But it also feeds everyday decisions, like who we choose to hire, whether we interpret a person’s actions as a threat based on the way they look, or some aspect of their character, and how we respond to that threat.

Falling behind on information warfare

Disinformation – though as old as time – has been harnessed in the information age to amplify social issues, increase distrust among disparate groups of people and drive wedges between previously unified groups. While some countries have been wise to this for many years, in the US, the phenomenon has caught many off-guard, leaving us more vulnerable than many realize. The US public had more awareness of disinformation operations during the Cold War, but the fall of the Soviet Union and the shift in security focus to terrorism and threats from non-state actors dulled the public’s understanding of the topic. Meanwhile, disinformation tradecraft (particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe) became more sophisticated, automated and easier to exploit. This was most dramatically seen in the recent US election cycle, but has been occurring throughout the last decade and particularly since the US and EU levied sanctions against Russia in 2014 following annexation of Crimea.

Managing Pandora’s Box

As with every problem that vexes our society, there is innovation and ingenuity at work to solve these problems. And though there is no way to close Pandora’s Box again, there are ways to lessen the impact of disinformation. Key among these is educating ourselves, and those around us, about how our biases make us prone to falling prey to disinformation. In addition, there is a growing body of literature and study on the topic that can help us understand what is occurring, when it’s occurring and how to address it. We can also familiarize ourselves with some of the tools (FacebookGoogle) that are emerging to address this problem; from initiatives to develop artificial intelligence solutions, to academic research, to the use of trusted data sources to refute questionable claims. There are good reasons to be hopeful about our ability to manage the threat that disinformation creates, but the fight against the use of technology to mislead, misinform, and drive wedges between people is particularly urgent. Especially in an age when mass communication happens at the touch of a button.

Meredith Wilson is the Founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International, LLC. Find out more or subscribe to our newsletter here.