Street smarts, micro intelligence, and executive protection


June 22, 2020 - By Christian West & Martin Nielsen

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Sometimes it seems that executive protection agents and intelligence analysts should sign up for couples therapy. We know we need each other, but the way we communicate keeps getting in the way of a healthy relationship.

Practitioners on both sides of the fence will probably recognize the stereotypes. EP agents think intel analysts spend too much time in their ivory towers and are more concerned with macro-trends than anything practical. Intel analysts see EP agents as people so close to the ground that they have a hard time getting a helicopter view of the larger forces that delineate security contexts.

Although there’s always a little truth to stereotypes, these preconceived notions ultimately get in the way of good thinking and do more harm than good. That’s definitely the case for the EP/intel typecasts, too. Instead of making each endeavor stronger, digging ditches between the two practices is much less productive than building bridges. This needs to change.

We think one way of changing this is getting clearer on the area of intelligence that are relevant to both intel analysts and EP agents: protective intelligence.

As we pointed out in a previous blog, Integrating protective intelligence in executive protection: It’s time to sharpen the saw, there are three main things that distinguish protective intelligence from the kinds of intelligence analysis carried out by national intelligence agencies and many major corporations:

  1. Protective intelligence is about mitigating personal risk to a principal
  2. Protective intelligence is proximal, i.e., more concerned with what’s close by than what’s far away in terms of space, time and relationships
  3. Protective intelligence is actionable, so intel that can be acted on now is more valuable than something that needs further processing

We think there are plenty of ways that executive protection practitioners can up their protective intelligence game. One way is to understand the value of street smarts, something the best EP agents always seem to have in abundance, and to get better at using street smarts in a more structured way to deliver micro intelligence, the ongoing collection of intel building bricks that are hyper-local, relevant now, and practically helpful – and can be pieced together to mitigate emerging risks.  

From street smart to master of micro intelligence

Folks with street smarts have a lot of “common sense” in general, and share a number of specific characteristics:

  • They have great situational awareness, and know what’s going on in the world and on the streets around them
  • They are good at separating signal from noise, filtering out what matters from a sea of distractions
  • They know how stuff works – both things that can stand the light of day and those that happen when the lights go out
  • They get along with all kinds of different people, are friendly and polite, and know how to ask the right questions but not too many
  • They stay out of trouble and avoid harmful situations that have no value to them, but they are assertive when they need to be, and can defend themselves if needed
  • They have excellent BS radars, are good at reading others’ intentions, and can smell a rat a mile away
  • They’re independent thinkers who actively listen to others and then make up their own minds about what to do – and act

Sound like any executive protection agent you know? We hope so, because in our experience, street smarts are one of the things that sets apart reliably good agents from the rest. Street smarts are also what makes good bouncers great. And if you’ve ever worked in loss prevention, you know that street smarts play an outsize role in reducing “shrinkage”.

But having a lot of street smarts doesn’t necessarily mean that you are of any use in terms of protective intelligence. Just because your awareness lets you thrive in almost any situation doesn’t mean you can help others thrive by collecting, analyzing and reporting intelligence. To do that, you need to crystalize your street smarts into what we’ll call “micro intelligence”: risk-mitigating information you collect because of your street-smart awareness, can articulate in words, and pass on to others either in writing or in a conversation.

Micro intelligence is the output of the intelligence cycle at street level

When EP agents come up with micro intelligence, they go through the same steps of the intelligence cycle that we described in our blog on protective intelligence. They just do it faster, more informally, and with a different focus.

We call the output of this street-level intelligence cycle “micro intelligence” because EP professionals are interested in understanding all the little local things that potentially indicate here-and-now risks (and risk mitigation measures) impacting the safety, happiness and productivity of their principals. Contrast this to “macro intelligence”, which can be equally important to mitigating risk in the long term, but can be performed at a distance and is not as time-sensitive.

Let’s recap the intelligence cycle in terms of micro intelligence.

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Intent: Like all intelligence, micro intelligence starts with intent. At street level, we like to think of this as situational awareness with a purpose.  For EP agents actively participating in the practice of protective intelligence, the purpose of our situational awareness is twofold:

  1. Keeping the principal safe here and now by maintaining awareness of potential, emerging and current threats and vulnerabilities
  2. Keeping the principal safe in the longer term by passing on information that can help others to mitigate future risks

The first part of this dual purpose is hopefully clear to everyone practicing executive protection. If it isn’t, we suggest you either get your EP training money back or take a much-needed refreshment course ASAP.

The second part, passing on information that can help mitigate future risks, is not so clear, and brings us back to the “great divide” between executive protection agents and intelligence analysts described above. For EP practitioners to become active participants in the practice of protective intelligence, they need to realize that they are not just lone wolves who think on their feet and act on their own to protect the principal here and now. They must also be team players in a system that provides protection when their shift is over.

Agents on the street are one part of the protective intelligence system; other stakeholders (e.g., analysts, GSOC operators, other players in the client’s security apparatus, etc.) form other parts of the system. What’s important here, and what often seems to go wrong, is that information and intelligence need to flow both ways within the system, not one way only. So, while it’s important that relevant macro intelligence flows “down” from intel analysts to EP agents, it’s equally important that pertinent micro intelligence flows “up” from the street to offices in remote locations.

When this systemic approach becomes part of their intent, EP agents are on their way to professionalizing the practice of protective intelligence.

Collection: Collecting information at street level is both an art and a science. Some EP agents – the ones with plenty of street smarts – are natural-born intel collectors. Others have to work harder to get results. But we think everyone can get better at this through training and mentoring.

Simple observation, keeping your eyes and ears open, is, of course, key. To state the obvious, scanning your surroundings is much more helpful than staring at your smartphone. But there’s more to it than that.

When on the road, we often tell agents to get out of their hotel rooms as much as possible and place themselves in public areas of the hotel where they can see and learn. Instead of ordering room service, go down to the café and eat your breakfast, train your observation skills, and maybe get smarter about how things work in that place and at that time. Instead of holing up in your room to write notes, find a spot in the lobby where you can work AND keep an eye on what’s happening there. When you’re out and about, you might just discover something that’s relevant to the principal’s safety; when you’re in your room with the TV blaring, not so much.

Where micro intelligence really gets interesting, however, is when it involves other people. The textbooks refer to this as “humint” and these other people as “informants”. We think of it as talking to the people you meet on your way, asking relevant questions, and actively listening to their answers.

Everyone you meet on a trip has the potential to support your protective intelligence efforts if you ask the right questions. So, go ahead and chat up the Uber driver, the concierge (and don’t forget the bellboy) at the hotel, the waiter at the lunch spot, the valet at the restaurant for dinner, and locals and the bartender at a bar.

In residential security, politeness and helpfulness towards the neighbors – combined with awareness with intent – can be a huge help. When neighbors see the security detail as friendly folks who keep an eye on things – not only the principal’s place but the neighborhood around it – then they are more likely to share potentially relevant information. Learning a little about the new boyfriend that drives the blue car that’s often parked at the neighbors might come in handy at a point.

Analysis: The analysis phase is often much shorter in micro intelligence than in traditional, or macro intelligence analysis. Sometimes you have to make a split-second decision based on something you observe; other times, it’s only after connecting a few dots that things become clear enough to act on.

But just because there usually isn’t much time to analyze collected observations doesn’t mean that this analysis isn’t important. When protective intelligence focuses on the proximal and actionable to mitigate personal risk to the principal, it’s because understanding and reacting to what’s happening “left of bang” is far more effective than responding to threats “right of bang.”

As Van Horne and Riley point out in their best-selling book, kinesics, biometrics, proxemics and all the other cues, when observed and analyzed correctly, make us better able to mitigate risk. The ability to read these cues and act on them looks a lot like street smarts.

Reporting: Slogans like “see something, say something” are of little help when it comes to reporting micro intelligence. Awareness with a purpose makes us see a lot of things, not all of which are worth saying anything about. How do we know when to tell what, and to whom?

Street smarts combined with experience helps agents separate the wheat from the chaff and know what kind of information matters now or might matter later. So do clear briefings and managerial follow-up. Executive protection agents must understand their role in the overall protective intelligence system. They must be team players who know how to share. And they must know what constitutes significant intel and when and how to report it.

When EP agents turn observations into micro intelligence, they need to decide between three alternative next steps about what to do:

  1. Push it up now: The intel is critical and time-sensitive and needs to be shared up the chain of command ASAP.
  2. Mention in pass-down notes: The intel is important but not time-sensitive, and something the next shift should keep an eye open for.
  3. Archive it the back of the mind: The intel is too significant simply to forget, but there is not enough there – yet – to report to others. Tagging this in our memories as “notice if repeated” or something similar keeps it alive without taking up bandwidth at the forefront of attention.                                         

What do you think? How do you use micro intelligence in your executive protection practice? Ping us on social media – we’d love to continue the conversation.

Photo by Maximillian Conacher on Unsplash

Christian West

Founder and CEO

Christian has been active in the executive protection industry since the late 1980s, when he worked for Danish musicians who relocated to Hollywood. Upon returning to Denmark, he founded his own EP company, which he quickly grew into Scandinavia’s largest, before it was acquired by Securitas.

Christian founded AS Solution in 2003, and again in 2009 followed his international clients to the US, where he is now based. An active member of ASIS and a leader in the corporate executive protection industry, Christian has personally planned and led high-profile engagements in over 76 countries for a wide variety of corporate and high net worth individual clients, including the international roadshow for the biggest IPO in history.

Martin Nielsen

Martin Nielsen

Executive Protection Operations & Executive Projects Director

With over 18 years of worldwide experience in executive protection, physical security, and security operations management worldwide, Martin has participated in, led, planned, managed and executed security details in more than 65 countries. He has held positions from team member to detail leader, SAIC, operations manager and assistant director. Martin’s experience with security for ultra-high net worth individuals and corporations also includes program design, recruiting and training agents, technology sourcing, system and GSOC design, SOP and TTP development, and creating training programs for EP agents and other security professionals.

Martin believes in being on the forefront of technology, and keeps up on the latest developments within everything from access control to drone and counter-drone technology.

Passionate about developing both hard and soft skills for himself and others, Martin has consistently sought the best training ever since he started in the industry. He is a graduate of more than 35 courses.

Martin’s current role at AS Solution supports senior management in a variety of ways, including protection program data analysis, handling client information requests, organizing and coordinating outreach and external relations efforts, improving EP training programs, and overseeing special projects from conception to completion.