Executive Risks Intensified Throughout Pandemic, Study Finds

Understanding the unique threat landscape affecting executives, their families and the company can help avoid or limit threats of kidnapping or physical harm.

By Fred Burton October 4, 2021
Executive Risks Intensified Throughout Pandemic, Study Finds

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The scenic neighborhood of Pleasure Point Drive in Santa Cruz, California, was shockingly disrupted in the early hours of 1 October 2019 when Tushar Atre was dragged from his home by three assailants. By 9:00 a.m., the namesake and then-CEO of tech company Atrenet was found dead by way of a gunshot wound. Police arrested the four men suspected responsible eight months later, including two employees of Atre: Lindsay and Kaleb Charters.

This crime is an example of the numerous threats executives face, including those posed by the very people they employ. According to a recent study commissioned by the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence, Mid-Year Outlook 2021: State of Protective Intelligence Report, 24 percent of physical security and IT leaders said that since the beginning of 2021 their CEO and/or family members received threats and/or were harmed when working from their private residence or while traveling as a result of intelligence failures. Equally alarming is that 15 percent of respondents said their company had also received executive kidnapping threats since the beginning of 2021. These statistics are not anomalies but trends that should not be ignored. 

The first step in shining a brighter light on this issue is understanding the unique threat landscape affecting executives, their families, and the company.

Threats Around Every Corner… and Social Feed

Everyone experienced a tumultuous 2020, but corporate leaders running organizations amid a pandemic and heightened socio-political challenges are always in the spotlight. Executives may use social media to speak to stakeholders and put a human face on their company, but their communications—or lack of communications—can be misinterpreted, misused, or unknowingly tap into smoldering hostilities.

More than half of all respondents to the Center for Protective Intelligence survey said their CEO has received physical threats both as a result of either expressing (58 percent) or not expressing (40 percent) a position on racial and/or political issues. Thirty-five percent said that their CEO's public expression of concern about extremists has resulted in new physical security threats, and 33 percent said their company has experienced an increase in physical threats and backlash tied to extremism, racial justice, and political issues. As a result of encouraging vaccination and mask use, 56 percent of those surveyed said that their CEO received physical threats.

Costs Don't End at the Ransom Payment

The objective of any security team is to keep executives, employees, and assets safe. But bad actors know the power of threats against a company and will use any soft spot necessary to get a payday, payback, or carry out a threat. This could mean demanding ransom, extortion using information obtained through a cyber breach, destruction of important assets, or countless other tactics. To truly understand the threat profile of an executive, these potential vulnerabilities must always be factored into ongoing security considerations.

A threat assessment can help. Threat assessments create a complete picture of the existing threat level by examining the factors that could bring hostile attention to the subject, any currently known threats, the universe of potential threats and threat actors, as well as the subject's general threat environment. Once developed, it is important for these to be living documents because the threat landscape is never static.

Ahead of the Curve to Stay Ahead of Threats

Despite the abundance of threats, 19 percent of physical security and IT leaders in the same study say their CEO does not believe their company will ever be a target for significant physical harm and does not value employee training and preparedness for dealing with such crises. And yet, since the beginning of 2021, 22 percent of physical security and IT leaders said their company's CEO and/or their family members had received physical threats. All of these developments are troubling and should resonate loudly with the C-suite and board of any company. 

 
To match these threats, physical security is transforming its use of data and technology to build a full picture of the threat landscape and identify, assess, and mitigate threats. The functions that interact with executives—legal, HR, security—are best positioned to intercept potential issues but need to be able to share, view, and communicate concerning activities across offices and personnel. Technology can help by providing a single pane of glass view of the entire threat landscape. 

Work in Peace

With only grainy video to go on, it took police eight months and 3,000 man-hours to put the pieces together and charge the four men allegedly responsible for Atre's death.

It's always going to be harder to respond to a crisis than it is to proactively prevent one. You will never find the pieces of the puzzle unless you are looking. By adopting the right mind-set, strategy, technology, and tools, companies can protect the future of their business by protecting the executives that lead them.

Fred Burton is an expert on security and counterterrorism, having served on the front lines of high-profile investigations such as the hunt for and arrest of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bombing and the search for Americans kidnapped by Hezbollah in Beirut, Lebanon. A former police officer and New York Times best-selling author, he is executive director of the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence. 

This article is adapted from Security Management Magazine with permission from ASIS © 2021. All rights reserved.