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Private Sector Intelligence: A Developing Professional Environment

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By Daniela Baches-Torres
Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies

The intelligence tradecraft has made significant inroads in the private sector during the past five years, particularly in the United States, as well as in Asia and Europe.

In the 1990s and the beginning of 2000s, corporate intelligence was part of the work that private corporations did for the Intelligence Community (IC) to help government agencies   meet their security goals. These private sector contractors usually provided specialized services, ranging from technical and IT-focused assistance to field work, including translations and physical protection. However, this work has been relatively restricted to a small pool of contractors since their work requires a secret clearance level given the sensitivity of the information.

Most of the accessible intelligence-related activity in the private sector has been the work of business and competitive intelligence divisions within large companies, either consultancies or big multinationals. Although generally open to the larger public, these analytic roles require a set of skills that tend to favor candidates with a background in and knowledge of economics, finance, IT and data analytics.

Corporate or Private Sector Intelligence (PSI) Provides for the Security of Businesses

A third type of intelligence work that has emerged in recent years is closely related to the traditional tradecraft and focuses on assessments of threats and risks. Private sector intelligence (PSI) provides for the security of businesses and their operations and assets, including the physical protection of their personnel, products and services, and facilities.

Aware of the changing security environment and the threats that can directly or indirectly target their operations, companies understood the need to proactively assess the risks that can affect them. These threats can include individuals and groups hostile to a target company or business sector, such as IT and technology, the pharmaceutical, or the entertainment industry. Threats can also come from single-issue activist groups organizing protests and strikes that might turn violent and highly disruptive to bystanders, or natural disasters that could have a short- or long-term impact on company facilities, supply chain operations or essential business services.

Private sector intelligence benefits from the knowledge former IC practitioners bring with them when they leave the government to continue their intelligence careers in the corporate world. The skills, knowledge, and tradecraft understanding that these professionals possess have helped corporations build strong foundations for their PSIUs.

At the same time, the increasing number of self-schooled intelligence analysts — who do not have a background or previous experience in law enforcement or government intelligence — provides a fresh vision and a set of versatile skills that can benefit corporate IC team clients adapt the intelligence processes to the fast-changing world.

The emerging literature on PSI defines the corporate intelligence tradecraft as a process involving the collection, analysis and dissemination of actionable strategic and tactical information on possible hostile actors or other hazardous worldwide events that could represent a direct physical or reputational risk to a company’s operations and assets. This information is collected mainly through the exploitation of open sources (OSINT) and social media, and occasionally through human sources (HUMINT). In fact, OSINT (including social media (SOCMINT), represents approximatively 95 percent of the intelligence collected and produced in the private sector.

Exploitation of OSINT outside any government collection restrictions to produce actionable intelligence for security purposes have opened the path to the creation of private sector intelligence units and appropriate professional roles.

As noticed by both academics and practitioners, the availability of OSINT and the increased awareness of threats targeting businesses and their vulnerabilities led to an increased need to build capabilities to help companies mitigate these potential risks.

The PSI environment, which is composed of several types of organizational and individual actors, provides numerous career opportunities in corporate intelligence: These opportunities include:

In-house private sector intelligence units (PSIUs)

Companies have been developing their own intelligence capabilities aligned with the specifics of their businesses. Most PSIUs are part of the company’s broader security program, providing intelligence that includes an assessment of the associated security risks, to help top executives make informed decisions.

The PSIUs provide actionable intelligence to support day-to-day business operations and future projects, both of which require an understanding of security developments likely to affect operations locations. Company intelligence programs usually include a Global Security Operations Center (GSOC) and a Strategic Intelligence unit. They provide global coverage of security issues that may impact the business, from 24/7 real time alerting to forecasts and intelligence estimates.

Depending on a company’s footprint, broader intelligence and security programs can also include intelligence functions that focus on travel security, intelligence protection unit, or investigations and due diligence. Companies with a global footprint that have intelligence units and that actively recruit intelligence analysts include Disney, MacDonald’s, Starbucks, Bank of America, Merck, Cargill, Apple and Google among many others.

Intelligence consultancies

Also known as global risk/risk management consultancies or vendors, they offer intelligence services to companies that do not have their own PSIUs. They might also provide general or tailored intelligence products as additional sources for the in-house intelligence team. Their intelligence services range from OSINT collection and analysis to recruiting for embedded intelligence positions for a private company, as well as intelligence analysis training. These consultancies provide services worldwide. Organizations that recruit regularly include Control Risk, Sibylline, Emergent Risk International, Risk Advisory Group, GardaWorld or IHS Markit.

Intelligence professional networks and roundtables

Founded in 2015, the Association of International Risk Intelligence Professionals (AIRIP) represents intelligence professionals in the private sector. Built as a nonprofit association, AIRIP is a go-to platform for networking, allowing intelligence professionals from entry level analysts to senior managers to exchange best practices, lessons learned and resources, thus contributing to the development of corporate intelligence. Similar roundtables and working groups of intelligence analysts have formed that focus on the same region or monitor the same security threats, such as terrorism, domestic extremism, protest activity across various sectors, or online activism. All these initiatives have contributed to the evolution of the intelligence profession in the private sector.

Private sector intelligence is developing as a community of practice and practitioners that employs many of the processes, sources and methods, and organizational and operational models of government intelligence and adapting them to the corporate world. This enables increased openness, cooperation, networking and knowledge compared with the traditional IC tradecraft.

Note: This article is the author’s own and does not necessarily reflect the views of her current or former employers or other affiliated organizations.

Daniela Baches-Torres is an instructor at American Military University. She has 10 years of experience in intelligence research and analysis gained in different roles across academia, government and the private sector. Her research interests involve issues related to intelligence cooperation, organizational culture, and the history of science. She also works as an intelligence analyst in the private sector. Daniela and her husband are the co-editors of the first academic volume dedicated to Intelligence in the Private Sector.

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