As we continue to monitor trends associated with COVID-19 and the resulting social impacts we have noted some trends that are becoming prevalent in different areas that are potentially significant to security operations throughout the country.
One of the trends is a decrease in reported street-level crime in many US major metropolitan areas. This apparent decrease could be the result of the many factors associated with shelter in place directives or, to some extent, a shift in efforts by local law enforcement. This will be an important statistic to continue monitoring as our economy weathers the impact of sustained business closures.
Police Departments are reporting a drop across the US due to COVID-19 especially in large cities across the US including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. In Chicago crime dropped 10%, crime dropped 30% in the month of March in Los Angeles, and New York experienced a 12% decrease from February to March.
While crime rates are low now, the psychological impacts of COVID-19 are still being assessed. In a 2020 study published by the International Journal of Environmental Health Research and Public Health that included 1210 respondents from 194 cities in China, “…53.8% of respondents rated the psychological impact of the outbreak as moderate or severe; 16.5% reported moderate to severe depressive symptoms; 28.8% reported moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, and 8.1% reported moderate to severe stress levels”.
Though not conclusive, the psychological impacts may be a contributing factor that has led to an uptick in POI activity, particularly regarding social media use. Many of the POI’s that ESOC actively monitors were already prolific users of many social media platforms, but whether through mandated isolation or due to an increase in stressors related to COVID-19, we are seeing an upward trend in use, or in some cases misuse.
Congruently there is a widespread rise in social media use. While Twitter does not report the company’s usage statistics until the quarter is over, other social media sites do. Percent changes from January 21st to March 24th show Tik Tok experienced a 15.4% increase in daily traffic, a 19.7% increase on Twitch.tv (Website), and a 27% increase on Facebook (Website).
Here in the United States, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll discerned that nearly half of all adult Americans (45%) reported that worry and stress linked to the virus had negatively impacted their mental health. And as the pandemic continues, “it is likely the mental health burden will increase as measures lead to greater isolation and potential financial distress”. Factors such as isolation and job loss are closely linked to poor mental health effects.
Although ESOC analysts believe the uptick in social media activity and negative mental health impacts of COVID-19 are contributing to POI online activity, it is important to acknowledge that it may not correlate to increased risk of violence. In the report released by the Behavioral Analysis Unit – National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) Making Prevention a Reality, Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks:
Although data are preliminary, threatening Tweets are not thought to be predictive of physical approach absent other simultaneous activity or contact toward a target. However, as with any case, each circumstance warrants individual scrutiny, paying particular attention to:
- Any noted patterns of escalation
- The intensity of effort and focus observed in a pattern of communications
- Potential leakage of harmful intent
- Evidence of a personalized motive by the threatener
- Expressed intention to approach
- Justifications for violence
All of these recommendations from the NCAVC require that the POI be identified, and a behavioral baseline is established. To achieve this requires professional experience, time, and proper workflows to adequately identify threat actors and gather pre-indicators of violence.
One of the main purposes of any protective intelligence effort is to identify threats to our clients as early, and as physically far away, from our Principals as possible. Through social media monitoring we are able to, oftentimes surreptitiously, glean valuable insights into the activity and mental state of persons that have, either through statements or activity (or both) become a threat to our clients.
With the noted increase in the material that needs to be reviewed, we at ESOC have been spending more time sifting through the “noise” to ensure that we are able to get our clients the important information that could possibly impact their Principals. To do this we are partnered with a proprietary software platform that uses machine learning to focus in on an entity or POI and not only monitor social media use but also, in some cases, geographic intelligence to be able to give as much of as an early warning of concerning activity or locations to our clients as possible.
A lot of times POIs display unhealthy interests in a principal or entity, and the more you listen for these pre-incident indicators of violence, the more you are going to find. The workflow ESOC leverages on our POI management platform include:
1. Identity Resolution
2. Geo-Location Insights
3. Open Source Analysis and Social Media Intelligence
4. Public Records Data
5. Assess Risk Indicators, Trigger Events and Formally Assign Threat Level
6. Develop and Implement Protection Strategies
This workflow is not only applicable to POIs. It can be used to keep facility and infrastructure safe, corporate campuses, school, religious institutions, and even brand protection, loss prevent, and supply chain protection.
The platform is designed to be mission-driven and allows for a customizable entity establishing a process that leverages multiple intelligence feeds. Once in the database POIs can be conveniently monitored for behavior that deviates from their behavioral baseline and pre-incident threat indicators.
Currently, with upticks in social media activity and psychological stressors being applied nationwide, it is important to identify threat actors, establish a behavioral baseline and monitor that baseline for deviations in behavior that would indicate pre-incident threats. The value and importance of effectively leveraging a protective intelligence program in the current threat environment is paramount. The worst-case scenario, which will happen, is that a POI will act, and only after the fact, executive protection professionals will realize that pre-incident threat markers had been apparent for weeks.