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Surge In Physical Threats During Pandemic Complicates Employee Security Efforts

Security consultants say companies are looking for ways to manage increased threats targeting a workforce that is less secure and more spread out. Surge In Physical Threats During Pandemic Complicates Employee Security Efforts

High-profile executives and rank-and-file staff have faced increased physical threats this year from inside and outside their companies, leading corporate security teams to search for ways to better protect employees—particularly those working from home, security executives say.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a raft of layoffs, spurring an increase in disgruntled former employees, they say. And corporations that have taken stances on social issues have increasingly become targets of threatening language on social media. The same goes for some companies that haven’t taken a stance.

Complicating matters for corporate security teams: Many employees who are working from home because of the pandemic don’t have the same protections—such as a badge system or a front-desk security guard—often found in corporate office buildings. If a threat is credible, remote employees and their families could be more vulnerable.

“The corporate duty-of-care obligation has in some cases extended from the office to the home,” said Mike McGarrity, vice president of global risk services at Global Guardian LLC, a McLean, Va., company that specializes in corporate security.

Companies and their executives have long been targets of protests or threats. “But you see more of it when there’s political tension or economic uncertainty,” said Mr. McGarrity, a former assistant director for counterterrorism at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Global Guardian in recent months has seen increased demand from companies seeking physical-security assessments and threat-management consultations, according to Mr. McGarrity. Threat management could involve monitoring comments made on social media, determining which are credible, and then coordinating with law enforcement.

Many companies and office landlords beefed up security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, following increased security at government buildings. But those tactics can’t protect remote workers, said Fred Burton, executive director of the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence, a research arm of Austin, Texas-based software company Ontic Technologies Inc.

“The private sector has pushed the threat into the home workplace,” said Mr. Burton, a former counterterrorism agent with the U.S. State Department. “Most homeowners have very basic security in place. You’re lucky if you have staff that has an alarm system.”

Sixty-nine percent of executives have seen a dramatic increase in physical threat activity against their companies this year compared with last year, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Ontic center. The survey polled 300 executives—including those in security, legal and compliance—at U.S. companies with at least 5,000 employees.

Among executives’ biggest concerns, according to the survey: keeping employees safe as they work remotely, identifying potential threats to reduce liability, and managing the volume of threat data, such as social media posts, reports from law enforcement and information on individuals who have threatened the company or its personnel in the past.

More than one-third worried about juggling these concerns with a security staff that has been reduced because of the economic impact of the pandemic. But 80% expect their physical security operating budgets to increase in 2021.

To mitigate the risks, more corporate security teams are revising emergency action plans, updating location data on staff, and beefing up physical security as well as efforts to monitor and assess threats from open sources, such as those found on the internet, Mr. Burton said.

Companies would be wise to break down silos between divisions to ensure protection efforts are coordinated, he added. That advice echoes guidance issued last month by the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission, which urged closer links between compliance departments and risk managers who focus on a wider scope of corporate hazards.

Lacking better communication, a threat monitored by human resources, for instance, might not be known to the legal department or corporate security team. “It’s that kind of dysfunction that I see every day,” Mr. Burton said.

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