A return to safe international business travel?
As plans for business travel resume, how do you keep safe, particularly from the threat of espionage?
Since the advent of globalisation, international business travel has been considered a necessity when conducting business across country borders. When tools such as video conferencing became more widely available during the 1990s, many believed international business travel would decline, but instead, until coronavirus hit globally in early 2020, the sector had continued to grow year on year to a peak of business tourism spending of $1.29 trillion in 2019.
Now, 18 months into a global pandemic, many are looking at plans for resuming business travel as more countries see reductions in their case numbers, more people become vaccinated and confidence grows in travel sector safety procedures. However, as well as the health and safety considerations of recommencing business travel, what are the important things to consider from a security viewpoint, and particularly from an espionage threat perspective?
International business travel: still necessary or desirable?
Within the travel sector, there has been considerable debate about the recovery of business traveller volumes and spend. For the airline industry, business travellers have historically accounted for 12% of the volume but up to 75% of profits, so the industry is keen to encourage the return of business travel to pre-pandemic levels.
However, for many organisations who have been permitted to travel under essential worker status, the complexity of international travel has posed significant challenges. Even as countries are now opening up their borders, the advice and requirements in place are complex, immensely varied and quick-changing. The rules around vaccination requirements, quarantine and self-isolation have already limited, and will continue to limit, business travel for some time to come until we emerge from this pandemic globally.
Alongside the practical considerations, many organisations are re-evaluating their business travel volumes from both environmental and Corporate Social Responsibility standpoints. Pre-2020, many companies, including PwC, Microsoft and Lloyds Banking Group, had committed to reducing or limiting their business travel emissions with the recognition that air travel contributed the most to carbon emissions. A study by O2 Business in June 2020 also showed that 48% of UK workers were concerned about the negative environmental impact of business travel , while investors are increasingly applying ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) criteria to company investment decisions. Certainly, all of these factors point to a continued downward trend in international business travel.
But what is the desire to return to international business travel among the workforce? Changes in working practices since early 2020 including greater levels of remote working, accepted flexible working policies helping to accommodate operating across time zones, and improved dependability and functionality of video conferencing software have all helped to facilitate more effective international communication and collaboration. But many miss face-to-face interaction, and it is widely accepted that meeting with colleagues, business partners, suppliers and clients in person serves to strengthen relationships. There are also many occasions when travelling to a country is still essential; some services simply cannot be delivered remotely.
Staying secure when travelling internationally
From a security perspective, international business travel has always presented risks. The transportation of organisational assets, both tangible and intangible, poses a risk of interception and theft and from an espionage threat perspective, an adversary is aware of the vulnerabilities of an unfamiliar location or situation where the usual home country security protocols cannot be followed or maintained. With the conditions of resumed business travel as we’ve already explored, any international business requirement is likely to be more critical and involve personnel handling more sensitive assets and conducting more sensitive conversations and the adversary will be very aware of this shift.
When advising organisations on safe international business travel, we advocate three key disciplines: briefing, discretion and being environment-aware.
Being well briefed on how to keep assets secure and location-specific risks and factors are essential for any business traveller, especially so for any employees who had not received such training or advice pre-pandemic but equally for seasoned travellers who need risk updates.
Disseminating foreign travel advice from local government and gaining insight from corporate travel partners are one level of education, but many organisations are now going further to build and share their own local threat assessments cross-company.
The mantra for any business traveller should always be discretion. It can be easy to become exposed or overly relaxed when abroad, and time-old espionage techniques such as honeypot traps continue today as the adversary preys on these vulnerabilities. The case in 2020 of a US defence linguist charged with sharing highly sensitive national defence information with a member of Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah with whom she shared a romantic interest shows evidence of this risk . As well as being discreet at in-person events, the dangers of sharing information via social media and professional networks have been highlighted of late, and the US NCSC ‘The Nevernight Connection’ video showcases this perfectly.
As well as specific country or city risk factors, the business traveller should maintain a heightened level of awareness around transport hubs, hotels and third-party venues where their usual organisational security protocols are not in place. The use of hotel safes, storage and hardware are best avoided, as is leaving any device or asset in a hotel room. Measures such as providing clean IT equipment can be advisable for locations and situations considered high risk.
A shift in security service resourcing?
For many security professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented some challenges in respect of maintaining key security service delivery as their preferred or contracted suppliers have been unable to travel themselves. For some organisations, this has forced them to review their sourcing models and focus on more local solution providers for protective services to avoid future travel risk and disruption. However, for certain fields and specialisms, it can be difficult to find reputable providers and apply the same best-practice sourcing criteria across countries.
TSCM, for example, is a notoriously unregulated industry. It is important to find a provider that applies industry-leading standards and uses highly trained personnel and specialist equipment to give the same level of threat assurance across all operations and projects to ensure you are protected.