Data pulled from open sources, like forums and social media profiles can go a long way to protecting a company’s personnel and assets.
The Occupy movement took hold last year, sweeping up grassroots organizers, courting unions and blue-collar workers, and sparking protests outside of corporate offices. Cold weather and disappearing camps have slowed the movement to a crawl, but a massive demonstration is planned to try and reignite the embers that may have survived through the winter. “Shut Down the Corporations ” on February 29 will target ExxonMobil, Bank of America, BP, Monsanto, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart locations nationwide, according to the Occupy Web sites.
Twitter and Facebook have been some of Occupy’s primary mediums for organizing since its inception, so for companies looking to predict the impact of Shut Down the Corporations on their own operations, information valuable to investigations sits hidden in plain sight on the Internet.
Data pulled from open sources, like forums and social media profiles, can go a long way to protecting a company’s personnel and assets, according to a librarian turned investigator Cynthia Hetherington . The Occupy Web sites provide general information for people interested in assembling, but tuning in to social networks can provide more detailed logistical information, Hetherington says.
“In the past most of it was spoken word, but now you could be scanning the Internet social networks for this type of behavior,” Hetherington said in an interview Wednesday. Hetherington has more than 15 years’ experience in research and investigations for various clients. Using her background in in library science, she started the Hetherington Group , a research and investigation firm that specializes in uncovering connections between people and assets and predicting potential threats.
Security managers should be looking for mentions of their company, its CEO, or other high level employees. “That’s going to be a target of a lot of their anger,” she said of upcoming protests.
She provided this example during an earlier online presentation for members of ASIS International: A man wrote in an online forum that the employees of a company should be killed. In half an hour, analysts at Hetherington Group were able to provide the company a dossier on the man that included his picture and location.
Hetherington Group uses software to provide these types of alerts. Analysts will flag posts that seem particularly negative or threatening and gather more information about the poster and other relevant data. “We’ve been able to prevent a few protests that are about to happen, whether it’s an animal rights group gathering its forces or other sources,” Hetherington said.
Because protestors are becoming increasingly aware that they are being monitored, posts on Facebook and Twitter contain less information and instead direct supporters elsewhere online. Hetherington found that organizers are using sites like Craigslist to try and fly under the radar.
“How do we know that? It’s just from our research. Something happens. A client says they want to know where it was posted. Well, we look everywhere and turn over every rock, and do we find residual images sitting on Facebook and other common places? Sure. But it wasn’t the point of origin,” she said. The information was traced back to the Rants and Raves section of a local Craigslist page. “That’s where we’ve actually found quite a few of the flash mobs getting organized.”
During a Hetherington Group training session in California last year, she pulled up the Rants and Raves section and found fans not-so-secretly trying to organize retaliation against Dodgers fans for a beating that left Giants fan Brian Stow in the hospital with brain damage.
It’s going to take the security industry some education and convincing before the value of this kind of research is fully embraced, she says. Hetherington sees two main types of managers in the security industry – the ones who are experts in physical security and more recently, the cybersecurity specialists. She sees analysts at Hetherington Group as a hybrid of both.
“You can look at all the knobs and things you can shut off, but you can’t shut off your employees and they are the weakest link. What they’re doing online and their behavior is always going to be a huge outcome to you. So how do you make it sexy for the security manager who’s been retired law enforcement for 20 years who is now sitting as head of security of a worldwide company? We need him to be a manager. He needs to hire that analyst. They need to bring on the talent or recognize that they need to get the right training,” she said.
But this data isn’t just important for security staff preparing for protests. Online data can also help to screen for workplace violence.
“Before people walk into a place with a gun, they’re going to talk about it on social networks first. This is the trend. Our experience is that these people are kind of looking for someone to pull them back, and when they don’t get that that’s when they start raging and coming out and that’s happening in the workplace,” she said.
photo by PeteSimon/flickr