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5 Travel Risks Executive Protection Teams Must Consider in 2021

Throughout June, over double the number of travelers passed through TSA checkpoints than in January. These numbers will only rise as borders reopen—but what new risks can business travelers expect in the post-COVID world, even when fully vaccinated?

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Back in 2019, a GBTA survey revealed that 46% of UK and US business travelers work for companies that lack transparent travel security policies. Organizations that still fall into this category are more likely to risk executive safety as travel resumes in an even more complex and unpredictable threat landscape.

The good news is that a well-informed travel risk management strategy helps organizations stay ahead of COVID-era travel risks as executives hit the road. 

The key is finding the right information at the right time. Travel risk information is increasingly available on public online sources like social media, news, and other unindexed sites. Easy access to relevant data can give existing executive protection functions the intel required to understand and respond to emerging travel risks more quickly and effectively.

What new travel risks should executive protection teams be aware of, and how can online data support a more robust strategy?

1. COVID-19 Transmission

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COVID-19 vaccination rates and accessibility vary widely by country and region. Fully vaccinated people may still be at risk for variants during international travel. Even in countries with higher vaccination rates, executives and other personnel attending conferences could be in close contact with individuals originating from a variety of different regions.

How online data can help: Monitoring public social media activity gives security analysts a clearer sense of foot traffic levels in specific areas without being physically present. This data also supports contact tracing and outbreak prediction, which can inform travel planning and risk response.

2. Travel Logistics and Disruptions

Global business travelers are likely to face more complex or lengthy processes when it comes to Visas, border crossings, quarantines, and testing. Travel restrictions can change rapidly and result in delays, potentially complicating an executive’s safe return home. 

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In the event of a sudden crisis—like political volatility or a terrorist attack—business travelers are often required to make last-minute detours to nearby countries. This process may be more challenging or even impossible depending on surrounding border restrictions.

How online data can help: Localized news and media sources are valuable for accessing up-to-date information about travel restrictions abroad. Since executive protection teams may be unfamiliar with relevant news sources in other countries, web monitoring tools like the Echosec Systems Platform are useful for aggregating and translating content from multilingual sources.

3. Social Unrest

The pandemic has spurred unemployment, austerity measures, and disinformation, influencing a rise in violent demonstrations and domestic extremism. Minimized foot traffic combined with economic downturns can also change crime rates and public safety in previously safe regions and neighborhoods. Business travelers may be unprepared for this shift.

How online data can help: Social media content enables security analysts to assess public sentiment in target destinations so they can stay better prepared for social unrest. Monitoring mentions of relevant locations on more covert sites like chan boards and alt-tech also helps security teams predict violent planning and attacks

4. Inadequate Crisis Response

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Unexpected crises like natural disasters and terrorist attacks aren’t new travel risks since the pandemic started. However, some countries may now be less equipped to handle such events because their emergency resources and infrastructure have been exhausted through pandemic response. And while international terrorism hasn’t made headlines lately, some argue that the pandemic and resulting social instability creates an environment ripe for terrorist activity and recruitment—which may become evident as borders re-open.

How online data can help: As bystanders observe unfolding crises through their devices, social media is often the earliest and most reliable source of risk information. This can reduce blind spots for security teams who need to send in additional resources for traveling executives and personnel when a crisis hits. Less-regulated social networks and messaging apps like Telegram are also valuable for monitoring and assessing terrorist activity in vulnerable regions.

5. Cyber Threats

According to a report by International SOS, less than a third of organizations include cybersecurity in their travel policies. Since the pandemic’s onset, cybercriminals have been exploiting public fear and domestic workforces to create COVID-themed phishing campaigns and target vulnerable networks. 

Increased cyber risks are likely to persist as travel resumes. For example, executives could be more likely to connect to unsecured Wifi networks while traveling. Adversaries may also leverage the knowledge of an executive’s whereabouts to create a more convincing phishing email.

How online data can help: Executive protection teams can monitor for online content revealing an executive’s business travel plans—like social media posts mentioning a specific conference or airport. Minimizing the accessibility of this information can inhibit cybercriminals from exploiting it for phishing and business email compromise (BEC) scams. Unindexed web spaces like paste sites and dark web forums also alert security teams to data leaks and exploitation strategies implicating executive safety.

Addressing New Travel Risks with Security Software

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In addition to travel insurance, extensive planning, and robust cybersecurity protocols, public online data is a valuable asset for executive protection teams. This information can minimize or prevent physical harm to business travelers, as well as financial and business loss associated with disrupted travel. 

But narrowing in on relevant online data when it matters most is not viable without specialized search tools. Data discovery software allows executive protection teams to find critical location-based content, risk indicators, and other insights across hard-to-search sites in just a few clicks. In the event of a sudden crisis, travel restriction change, or disease outbreak, this speed-to-information can make or break a response.

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Every organization that sends its personnel on business travel has a duty of care—a moral and legal obligation to manage employee safety. The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed what this duty looks like for travel risk management teams in 2021, and likely for years to come. As new threats emerge, executive protection teams will require online data to make more informed, timely decisions in response to risk.

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