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Uncomfortable bedfellows? NGOs and private security and risk companies

by Chris Abbott

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Private security companies are in the news again this week. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the Guardian newspaper have reported on leaked documents that suggest that British Airways, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Porsche are among several large companies that have used British private intelligence firms to monitor groups that challenged their businesses. This included the use of infiltrators to spy on campaigners.

This is not the first time that such underhand tactics have been employed against campaigners. In one well-known example, BAE Systems hired a company in the late-1990s to infiltrate Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and collect information about the organisation’s workings and activities, including passing on correspondence and internal documents. Then in 2007, BAE Systems admitted that it had hired another company to provide ‘media and internet monitoring’ of CAAT, and that the company had passed onto BAE confidential legal advice provided to the campaign group.

In 2013, Essential Information released a report detailing numerous examples over a 20-year period of corporate espionage against NGOs in the United States, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The report notes:

Corporations have been linked to a wide variety of espionage tactics. The most prevalent tactic appears to be infiltration by posing a volunteer or journalist, to obtain information from a nonprofit. But corporations have been linked to many other human, physical and electronic espionage tactics against nonprofits. Many of these tactics are either highly unethical or illegal.

This week’s revelations about British Airways and other companies remind us that while there are many professional and honourable individuals working in the private security and risk management sector, it is a murky and highly-profitable world.

What is surprising are the rumours that numerous well-known charities are making use of multinational private security companies. This can be directly, through outsourcing their security risk management, or indirectly, through crisis response insurance policies, for example. Open Briefing has long been uncomfortable with this situation, as it essentially represents the diversion of charitable funds to the private sector for the provision of services that could be managed in-house with the right training and support. Of course, commercial providers can be loath to provide such capacity building, as it undermines their business model.

Open Briefing provides civil society organisations of all sizes with an ethical alternative. There are seven key factors that distinguish us from the commercial providers currently courting the humanitarian and human rights communities:

  1. Open Briefing is bound by the code of conduct for members of the International NGO Safety & Security Association, which establishes, maintains and promotes accountable, transparent, equitable and technically-competent safety and security services.
  2. We provide services and products that are designed specifically for low-capacity NGOs and other social change agents, not just repurposed commercial services designed to provide another income stream.
  3. As a non-profit, our day rates are at least 20% lower than commercial rates, and any surplus is used to drive innovation and develop free tools for the international NGO community, not pay shareholders.
  4. We never knowingly use suppliers or services that invest in or have any links to unethical industries, including the arms trade and the extractive industries.
  5. Open Briefing operate a strict ‘no weapons policy’, as we believe that NGOs should not add further armed actors into already volatile situations.
  6. We are a signatory of the Code of Conduct of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, which is voluntary professional code that lays down 10 points of principle that all humanitarian actors should adhere to.
  7. We are an ethical employer that has joined the UK government’s Disability Confident scheme and signed the Charter for Employers who are Positive about Mental Health and the Armed Forces Covenant.

We urge all NGOs and charities to consider these points when choosing a security and risk management specialist.

To the best of our knowledge, Open Briefing is the only organisation – either commercial or non-profit – working worldwide to provide professional and appropriate physical, digital and wellbeing support to human rights defenders and others on the frontlines of civil society and their international allies.

If you want to find out more about our approach and how we can help your organisation, please contact us or consider booking a free NGO security risk management workshop.

Open Briefing is a non-profit social enterprise that supports high-risk, low-capacity civil society organisations and activists working in violent or repressive environments. We provide mentoring and training across safety and security, digital security, and wellbeing and resilience as well as intelligence and research support. We are using our expertise and experience to help create a more resilient civil society that can defend our human rights and strive for social, environmental and economic justice.

Open Briefing occasionally works with a small number of carefully vetted partners in the private sector that share our vision. We follow the Principles of Partnership drawn up by the Global Humanitarian Platform to guide in the inception, development, implementation and review of these partnerships. There are significant differences between these SMEs and the behemoths that some private security and risk companies have become. The one area where we are unable to compete with these multinational companies is resources. This is why we need to secure additional core funding to respond to the surge in demand for our assistance from threatened civil society organisations and activists around the world.