I spend a lot of time traveling, specifically overseas. Transitioning from a large government agency that provided and managed everything I needed during protective travel to a public sector position was eye-opening when I no longer had those resources. Thus, here we will discuss travel safety!
Fortunately, I still had a vast network that had made the leap before and was very helpful in pointing me in the right direction. I’ve said this before because it’s still true: ALL protection is based on the threat. Similarly, conducting a thorough protective advance will make or break a visit.
Understanding what is needed during an advance can fill a book and takes years of personal training and experience. Still, considerations for travel safety should be the common vein that flows through everything you do during your protective visit.
Travel Safety Starts With YOU
It’s easy for executive protection professionals to sometimes forget that travel safety isn’t just for your employer. It’s also for you! You’re a big tough protection agent, and safety is your job. So, you don’t need to worry about it… right? Wrong!
I no longer have a “God” pin. Even when I wore one, I never felt it physically protected me. On the contrary, I always considered personal safety in everything I did, especially during my travel. Having done hundreds of trips over a long career, I can say firsthand that anyone that travels can be a victim of a crime or other nefarious activities.
A random act could negatively impact your safety and the security of those you protect based on:
- opportunity or
- planned targeted attack.
And your job is to prevent it! So when conducting your advance, always consider who is watching you while you’re doing it.
Due to limited resources, most EP advance teams don’t have the luxury of having a countersurveillance team covering their backs during planning. To fill that protective gap, education is critical.
There is an excellent course offered by the Arcuri Group that provides exposure to the science behind situational awareness. The training and subsequent certification are directly applicable to travel safety for EP. Hence, I encourage you to look at it.
Before you step foot on a plane, you should research your destination for travel safety information.
It begins with historical files your team has collected from previous visits to the intended region or site.
Most operational EP teams that travel frequently have a shared database with all collected documentation on active and completed protective visits. These files are invaluable in reducing your advance work by providing contacts and safety information from previous visits.
Want to know which company provided an armored vehicle service on a visit or the name of the building engineer for a specific hotel? Check the historical files!
Need a phone number for the regional security officer or the hours for the hotel gym? Check the historical files!
Suppose the specific travel safety information you’re looking for isn’t in the historical files, or you need updated information because it’s changed over time. In that case, your pre-advance research allows you to identify the travel safety information you need before you leave.
While it may seem unimportant in overall travel safety planning, small details matter. If your advance can provide solutions for the small details, it means you did your homework, and the big details were covered. Historical file review provides a solid starting point for travel safety and allows time to work out the finer details of your protective advance.
Available Online Travel Safety Resources and Apps
Corporate EP teams are slowly moving away from security operation centers (SOCs). These are expensive and, in some cases, completely cost-prohibitive. Today, online resources and privately managed security platforms that provide real-time geolocated intelligence information and apps are commonplace in EP operations.
For example, companies like Ontic, International SOS, Dataminr, and Samdesk all offer contract services that provide proactive and timely information directly to your mobile device. In fact, they alert you to critical safety information during a protective visit.
Having an alert sent to your cell phone informing you of an issue related to your intended motorcade route before the problem impacts you is worth its weight in gold. The added benefit is you can use the same applications for travel safety research before your visit. Observing crime, weather, political, and even traffic information for your intended visit location helps you connect the travel safety “dots” before you enter the protective environment.
The US Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) is another significant free resource for travelers and includes travel guidance and regional and country-specific security reports. Knowing the geopolitical and social environment of a prospective visit location directly supports your overall advance results.
Another free application, Geosure, offers timely safety information using a numeric score (1-100) from trusted data sources for travelers worldwide. Executive protection teams use all the above resources in completing analytics for their risk and threat assessment before and during protective travel. Still, they now have the luxury of instantaneous mobile notifications when the threat picture changes on the ground.
Digital Security Awareness in Travel Safety
Whether it’s financial, politically motivated, or activism-related, every protectee you have, has been, or will be the target of a cyber-attack. Attacks vary depending on the target but commonly include:
- business email compromise,
- electronic death threats,
- social media account takeover,
- cell phone hacks,
- online hacktivism, and
- propaganda campaigns.
EP professionals protect people physically, but they also must protect their reputations. Therefore, EP companies must now incorporate other security measures beyond physical if they are to be relevant in the future protection landscape.
Limiting Data Leakage
As it relates to travel safety specifically, there are simple steps EP teams can take to protect themselves and their employers.
True, physical control of your electronic device is always important. Yet, you must also practice good electronic security habits to ensure data is secure — or at least as safe as possible.
The first question you should ask your protectee regarding electronic device travel safety is: “Do you really need to bring it?”
The answer will almost always be: “Yes.”
If your protectee absolutely needs it — and most think they do even if they don’t — can you use available resources to limit data leakage? It begins with educating your protectee on digital travel safety before you leave.
- Ask your protectee to back up sensitive data before the trip on a separate device they aren’t taking with them. If a device is compromised and/or data is lost, stolen, or locked during the trip, your protectee will have the data secure and available elsewhere. And you just earned your paycheck.
- Enable password logins on start-up (Bios) and ensure solid passwords for all mobile devices, applications, and social media accounts.
- When possible, utilize multi-factor authentication for device access.
- Establish an international calling plan and secure WiFi before you leave through your established cellular service provider.
Blocking Unwanted Signals
Get in the habit of using Faraday Bags for cell phones. The bags block digital signals to and from the device until they are needed.
- It acts like a handheld SCIF.
- Wait to turn on your phone after you land. Wait until you are 10-20 miles outside the airport before connecting to the local network, and use VoIP if the call is sensitive.
- Never store your passwords on any electronic device you’re bringing with you.
- Never use gifted, locally purchased, or loaned power cables, cubes, external storage, or USB devices. If you didn’t bring it with you, don’t use it.
- Turn off all geolocation services on your protectee’s devices, including the camera. Numerous online companies offer resources to track cell phones based on these services.
- Encrypt any sensitive information that would cause personal damage if lost. If you wouldn’t show it to your mom, lock it down.
- Ensure your operating system is fully patched with the latest security updates before departure.
- Ensure anti-virus, anti-malware, and anti-spyware protections are updated before departure.
- Update your web browsers and implement strict security settings before you leave.
- Ensure you direct your protectee to disable auto-connect for WiFi and Bluetooth during the visit.
- Disable wireless device-to-device sharing, such as AirDrop on iOS and/or Nearby Share on Android.
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on all internet devices.
- Limit online and social media postings reflecting your travel until after you return.
- Have copies of travel documents and passports saved online in a secure mailbox or encrypted travel vault.
- Consider using Apple AirTags for baggage and anything of value, including purses, computer bags, and luggage. AirTags can also be used for personal tracking if your protectee needs “space” and loose protective coverage.
- When using EMV Chip cards, always protect your PIN from view and avoid using ATMs altogether.
Travel Like a Gray Man or Woman
If you’re like most EP professionals, you have a “few” more tattoos than the excessive alcohol, and that trip to Mexico can excuse and are considerably larger than most humans worldwide.
YOU STICK OUT, to say the least, and holding your hands in front of your body at waist level while walking screams “security.” Add that to the logos on your clothing, and your overly confident “A type” behavior and “blending in” require diligent work. In some work environments, it’s expected that you dress the part or at least dress like your protectee.
Today, attire has as many differences in EP as the people that work in EP. I used to know what business casual was, but that was many years ago before jeans were acceptable in the workplace. If you’re in the industry, you’ve seen the recent push for “covert protection” rather than the standard overt protection we all practice.
Several workshops and schools now offer training in the “Gray Man” ideology for protective coverage. I’m not there yet, but I understand the principle of having a countersurveillance background. Gray Man Theory isn’t a new idea by any means despite the recent interest in the methodology.
Gray Man Theory is based on the science of human recognition and the Reticular Activating System — the part of the brain that responds to anything that stands out.
Our brains have evolved to categorize stimulus over millions of years of learned survival by limiting the flood of information it recognizes by forcing “normal” into the background until the RAS is stimulated. Once something “stands out,” our brain instinctively recognizes it as “not normal.”
Concerning protection, the principle is that becoming a Gray Man or Woman provides you with social camouflage to appear as though you are just part of the normal “non-threatening” environment.
The idea is to conceal the fact that you are prepared for a threat. It’s important to understand that your foe is also employing the same Gray Man techniques you are. They are actively attempting to appear average and non-threatening until they can attack.
Understanding your environment will help you blend in and aid you and your team in providing protective coverage while also remaining invisible to any threat. The counterargument to Gray Man Theory is that your mere presence prevents attacks.
There are positive points for both; the coverage should be situational and change with the threat environment.
Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, you should try to blend in and continually look for countersurveillance when conducting your protective advance. I’m not saying you should wear local traditional clothing. But, losing the Tony Lama’s and Nine Line T-Shirt and gray down a bit Tex would be in your best interest.
Need help with how to dress? Muted colors and clothing without logos or script are always a good bet.
The Sauna Threat
Recently I was in Scotland.
I was in the hotel gym a few days before my protectee came into town. During that time, a famous rapper — who had private EP security — was also in the gym. I say “famous” because if I knew who he was, trust me, everyone does. On that occasion, I wasn’t wearing anything “military” or “former agency” related (always a good idea). After my workout, I went to the sauna.
The rapper followed me into the sauna a few minutes later while his EP guy stood awkwardly outside next to the door.
I employed Gray Man behavior by not making eye contact and acting non-threatening. It was easy to do with a towel around my waist. I considered the optics and tactics used by the rapper’s security and wondered if there were other ways to handle the coverage. And if I’m talking about you personally, please don’t take offense.
There are always different ways to provide protective coverage. Yet, I wondered if standing outside of a sauna door drew more or less attention to the protectee.
Outside of a medical condition I was unaware of, was there an actual threat in the sauna? What are the chances an attacker would know the protectee would be in the sauna? My point to this story is Gray Man Theory works for both EP and the protectee.
As mentioned earlier, less visible and covert security may be the appropriate choice in limiting unnecessary attention for your protectee.
Travel Safety in a Social Environment
It’s unlikely your protectee will stay in their hotel room for the entirety of a trip. At some point, they will leave the hotel’s relative safety and venture out into the public. As stated earlier in this piece, you are also expected to protect the reputation of your protectee.
If you need a good horror story on bad protectee social behavior abroad, there are numerous examples from the Hollywood set in EP forums online. Some personal client behavior is so egregious that well-established professional agencies don’t accept protective coverage.
But let’s assume you have a “normal” protectee with “normal” social interactions while traveling. You should be aware of safety concerns that may bring unwanted attention and reputational degradation to them in social settings. In fact, social media has increased that risk exponentially.
Security Applies to Everyone
Remember that you are a protection agent, not a drinking buddy. That means you can still be cordial. However, it does mean you’re working, and there is a clear line you can’t cross professionally. You have one job and can’t do that while socializing with your protectee.
You will likely be in an unfamiliar place. So, be aware of your surroundings and ensure you have previously reviewed all the US State Department “Security Concerns” published in the Country Security Report for the location you are at. These detailed reports cover:
- general crime,
- kidnap threats,
- terrorist threats,
- protest and demonstration activity,
- health concerns, and even
- law enforcement concerns.
These reports are provided to help travelers “avoid” problems before becoming an issue. In addition, during my time with the government, I received numerous travel safety briefings from regional security officers in embassies around the world upon arrival in “their” country.
The briefings were very specific because some unfortunate citizens had fallen victim to the scheme or crime we were being briefed about. They didn’t want others victimized during the visit. Crimes were wide-ranging and included everything from professional pickpockets to Honey Pot schemes.
The Cute Young Lady
In every instance we were warned of, simple situational awareness and caution were vital in avoiding being victimized in social settings.
That cute young lady that just asked you to buy her a drink (which you later discover costs USD200.00 in cash or the bouncer will beat you senseless) should be a red flag because you aren’t that good-looking (even overseas) — and nothing is free.
Despite the warnings, there was always one person who didn’t think safety briefings applied to them personally. This led to them later suffering the unfortunate consequences of becoming the subject of a new safety briefing themselves.
In EP, those consequences could end up displayed on Apple News or TMZ. Use the training and experience you have to recognize and identify problems before they occur and step in when needed.
Know Where and How to Get Help
Surprisingly, motor vehicle accidents are the top cause of death and injury of US citizens abroad.
While EP tends to focus on the physical protection of a protectee, there is a much greater likelihood your employer will suffer a medical emergency or an accident in your care. For example, it is not uncommon today for executives in Fortune 50 companies to travel with doctors. Additionally, most Fortune 100 companies require EP employees to have at least an EMT certification or higher.
Medical attention becomes even more important when traveling outside your known medical system. For instance, a Level One Trauma Center in many parts of the world would not qualify as a Level Three Trauma Center in a developed country. Private medical practices are also very different from socialized medical systems.
EP should begin their medical travel safety by submitting a medical questionnaire to their prospective employer before the trip.
- Do they have medical conditions you should be aware of or require prescribed medication?
- Are sufficient amounts of medications being brought on the trip
- Where are those medications in the event of a medical emergency?
EP agents should know full medical histories and advance directives. This helps if a protectee is incapacitated and information needs to be relayed to a doctor.
Further, the hospital advance and hospital routes may be one of the most important pieces in any protective advance. For example, having the number for the nurse’s station at the ER entrance may seem unimportant until there is a medical emergency. And you need to call them for notification as you’re en route to the hospital.
Besides a medical crisis, EP advance agents should consider where they intend to go and what they intend to do for other emergencies. Outside of targeted violence, the most common threats to consider are
- natural disasters,
- geopolitical/social instability, and
- infrastructure failure.
In all cases, communication is key in developing and completing a planned secure evacuation of your protectee. Your plan may be to get to the airport and get airborne ASAP. But that requires reliable communications with your aircrew, as planes don’t just leave when you show up.
Your plan may be to evacuate to a safe haven like the embassy. In whatever plan you develop, communication is an integral part of achieving the safety and security of your protectee. Thus, your protective advance should always consider a wide range of emergencies and plans for effective communications.
You’re Not on an Island ― and Standards Are Coming
You spend untold hours considering every bad scenario that could occur and then develop a plan to counter it. You know every exit, entrance, route and consider what is available for use as a weapon in every room you enter.
Every person within arms reach and beyond is a suspected threat until they aren’t. Your operational level of paranoia would frighten most people. So instead, you memorize statistics that don’t come up in polite conversation:
- 64% of studied attacks happened in and around the protectee’s vehicle,
- with 77% of the attacks being successful or fatal.
The adage that “no one loves a warrior until the enemy is at the gate” is true, but you are needed more now than ever. Regardless of where you came from and why you chose this career field, it is essential to understand you aren’t alone and everyone wants you to succeed.
According to current statistics, there are over 14,000 registered private security agencies and schools in the United States alone. The makeup of staff and personnel in those agencies is as diverse as you could imagine. Training is likewise just as diverse.
Doing the Right Thing
Currently, there are EP agents working in this industry after completing a three-hour ASIS certificate with no prior experience standing next to career professionals that worked at the highest levels of executive protection in the government. There are also just as many opinions on “how it’s done right.” Just read any EP post on LinkedIn.
Regardless of your personal background, everyone is counting on you to do the right thing when bad things happen.
Congratulations, you just bought your first XSuit and got a fresh haircut. Unfortunately, all show and no go don’t work in this field.
If you don’t understand the fundamentals of protective operations, when the bell rings, someone will get hurt. “You don’t know what you don’t know” is a much more powerful statement nowadays.
A New Guard
The good news is the sun is rising on a brighter future for EP as a career. Within the last few years, a new guard of professional leaders in the EP industry has broken through the previously held stranglehold, which prevented standardizing EP in the United States.
The Board of Executive Protection Professionals recently began the important task of creating a new American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for the EP career field.
ANSI is the private non-profit organization that oversees the development of voluntary consensus standards for:
- systems, and
- personnel in the United States.
The organization also coordinates US standards with international standards.
Since the beginning of this critical work, other security organizations have rushed to market with products and services to collect money before the ANSI Standard sees the light of day in the coming months.
EP training academies and schools throughout the United States will eventually be unified in their training methodology and curriculum. The reason? It will be based on an established professional standard accepted by the entire industry.
While this new standard will cover many EP areas, you can be sure that the topic of travel safety will be part of it.