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04 August 2007

Mirror imaging of emerging threats

Private sector intelligence firms face a not inconsiderable challenge in marketing intelligence and security solutions to the corporate audience. Many multinational firms absolutely require robust intelligence support to tackle a wide range of transnational issues, many the very leading edge of emerging threats that will later become major interests for their counterparts in national intelligence organizations. The response within the corporate framework is often fragmented between various elements of the hierarchy, and between various functional areas and business units. The use of external vendors has been on the rise for at least a decade or more, but augmentation often occurs on an ad-hoc basis with little overall strategic perspective. It’s a devilishly difficult thing to get right – putting a new perspective to the arguments of those who complain about the growth in contracting in USG intelligence agencies. Thus, there are only a few variants on the “successful” formula which appeals to the corporate buyer of privatized intelligence and security services.

Recently, one of the information security vendors launched a new marketing campaign which is notable for an unusual display of creativity – not often a characteristic one associated with computer engineering. Hackistan is a fictional national adversary, complete with backstory, internal politics, and a national flag, that has become the vehicle used to pitch their product lines.

At first glance, it’s good for a laugh. And were it not for our personal experiences with particular flavours of Russian and Middle Eastern influenced threats, we might even fight it whimsical. However, the very resonance which makes the campaign successful from a branding perspective also gives us pause upon reflection.

It is not just the corporate sector which is seeking a more easily characterized adversary in a world of rapidly shifting amorphous threats. We have seen too many in even the best intel shops attempt to carve out their own version of branding for targets and issues. Sometimes, these are helpful mental models in the short term, creating better briefings and faster break in periods for new analysts. However, too often they are subtle traps for a whole host of cognitive biases, used to gloss over the difficult to answer uncertainties and the hard gaps. They allow mysteries to be recast into the familiar boundaries of yesterday’s puzzles, and offer the seductive but utterly false promise of understanding to which both good analysts and false prophets alike are inevitable drawn.

We have seen these crutches employed across accounts without regard to their utility – the recasting of the complex discussions of organizational theory around clandestine and covert threat groups into “terrorism, inc.”; or the attempts to simplify the shifting alliances and constant political interchanges between various warlords and chieftains through throw-away references to centuries’ old ethnic and tribal conflicts.

It takes real discipline to separate convenient metaphors from the necessary abstractions of analytical frameworks. It requires constant reminder that the map is not the territory, and that the familiar assumptions of our environments – be they political, military, social/cultural, or economic – may not serve us at all outside of our boundaries. And the future is just another abstract line of demarcation, constantly pressing in against the edge of the battlespace.

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