Coronavirus variants, on-again-off-again travel restrictions, a global spike in crime rates, a rise in the number of kidnappings, the threat of terrorism and the potential for global conflict, increasing cyberattacks, and a vulnerable workforce are all the ingredients of greater uncertainty in 2022. Businesses and individuals will need to pay close attention to a rapidly evolving threat landscape and adapt accordingly.
“It is everything all the time,” Karl V. Hopkins, who as global chief security officer at Dentons is responsible for managing the security for the world’s largest law firm, said of these challenges facing decision makers. Further, he added, “It has made it extremely difficult to be efficient and uniform in the way we approach it as an organization, and that puts a strain on resources.”
With no end in sight to these challenges, Hopkins said companies must avoid becoming complacent in their response. “We need to overcommunicate” crisis plans, he advised, while also emphasizing the importance of hypervigilance to avoid security lapses. “We are not going back, we’re going onward. It is going to get faster and more complicated,” he added.
Hopkins participated in a webinar hosted by Global Guardian on December 14 in which participants assessed lessons learned from the past 21 months of the pandemic and took stock of the challenges companies and their employees face as they try to get back to business. Hopkins was joined in the discussion by Mike Ballard, director of intelligence at Global Guardian; Zane Wilmans, managing director of Protexx Risk Management; and Shelly Weisenfeld, medical director at Global Guardian. Global Guardian CEO Dale Buckner moderated the discussion.
Omicron: A New Variant of Concern
A new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Omicron, was first detected in South Africa in November. This variant can better evade existing vaccines and carries a higher rate of reinfection. According to the World Health Organization, Omicron is spreading across the world at an unprecedented rate.
Some countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, responded by restricting travel from southern African countries. [The United Kingdom eventually lifted its travel ban on December 14.] Emphasizing the speed at which things change, especially in the midst of a pandemic, Wilmans said that when Omicron was detected “within six days South Africa went from a whitelist to a blacklist.” He added: “That is an important point to note going forward into 2022. If another variant comes along… you have got to think ahead and plan accordingly.”
While more transmissible, Omicron “is significantly less dangerous” than the Delta variant, according to Weisenfeld. The Delta variant of the coronavirus is still the leading cause of hospitalizations and deaths around the world.
Weisenfeld predicted that Omicron will not result in travel restrictions if it continues to remain an insignificant cause of hospitalizations and deaths. However, she added, “We still need to be aware of possible waves of Delta or perhaps further worrisome variants. But [travel] restrictions due to Omicron are really not supported.”
Government responses to the pandemic have ranged from lockdowns to mandates on vaccinations and masks. As businesses and individuals try to navigate this maze of regulations, the big challenge is “there is not a one-size-fits-all” response to the pandemic, said Hopkins. “How do you have that overlay, that reactivity, that speed, that ability to extend the workplace envelope but to understand it now is individualized down to location,” he asked.
The Impact of the Pandemic
Almost two years since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, the pandemic’s grip has barely loosened. Besides a global death toll that tops five million, the health crisis has caused economic destruction and contributed to rising levels of crime. Inequities in vaccine rollouts have meant countries are reopening at uneven rates; many are struggling with soaring infection and death rates.
Companies, meanwhile, are struggling with how, and when, to get their employees back into the office. Google, for example, is reportedly considering vaccine mandates; employees who don’t comply will lose pay and eventually their jobs.
The pandemic has acted as “an accelerant of organizational resiliency requirements,” said Hopkins. The fact that many employees are still working remotely has extended the risk profile, he said, noting the complexity of protecting employees and business operations under such circumstances. Companies are increasingly looking at how to provide duty of care to a work force that is still working from home. The key here is to be more proactive and less reactive.
“If you are responding, you are almost failing by definition,” said Hopkins, noting how quickly things can change on the ground. “You no longer have the luxury of building a team to respond. It has to be there, integrated” into other parts of the business, he added.
A Return to Travel?
Business travel started to pick up toward the end of 2021 and all predictions indicate it will continue to do so in 2022. Buckner said Global Guardian is almost up to 2019 travel support mission sets.
Hopkins said a key challenge will be restoring confidence in travelers. “Are you going to travel? The answer should be yes,” he said, adding that the extended period of remote work had shown its limitations. But business travel, Hopkins said, should be driven by an organization’s needs. It also depends on an organization’s resiliency, he added. This means ensuring employees know how to respond to a crisis, have the right set of resources available, and understand that things can change but that there is an infrastructure in place to adapt to such situations.
Other Global Threats
Besides the pandemic, other global threats are simmering. Russia has amassed troops on its border with Ukraine heightening concerns that it may be planning another attack on its neighbor. China has stepped up provocative breaches of Taiwan’s air defenses with an eye firmly on taking control of the island nation. And in Ethiopia, Tigrayan rebels creep closer toward the capital Addis Ababa in their conflict with government forces.
These developments are all cause for concern for travelers, said Ballard. Citing the risks, he recalled the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine where a conflict was underway between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces. All 298 people on board were killed.
Ballard listed other potential causes for concern around the world: the economic turmoil in Turkey; unrest in parts of Europe related to COVID-19 mandates and restrictions; and cyberattacks originating from countries like China and Russia and facilitated by companies like Israel’s NSO Group which sold spyware technology to governments that then used it to target critics, including human rights activists and journalists.
Global conflict zones that “had a bit of a timeout” as a consequence of pandemic-related lockdowns “have all come roaring back,” Buckner contended. He listed among hot spots Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, and Venezuela. “The takeaway is that the little bit of respite we had is clearly in our rearview mirror,” Buckner said. The economic devastation caused by the pandemic, he added, has further accentuated the challenges in many of these countries.
South Africa on the Brink
South Africa is facing a period of turmoil. This turmoil is fueled in part by the pandemic, which has contributed to high rates of unemployment, rising crime, and growing inflation. “I do believe we are going into some probably harsher times in South Africa,” predicted Wilmans, who participated in the webinar from South Africa.
Debate about introducing vaccine passports and issuing vaccine mandates has resulted in civil unrest in South Africa, similar to that in Europe. As a consequence, Wilmans said, the South African government will have to be extremely careful about pushing ahead with mandates.
Even though the South African government has yet to issue a vaccine mandate—South Africa’s vaccination rate is around 35 percent—the private sector is doing so resulting in labor shortages, including at the country’s main ports. The situation in South Africa could have a knock-on effect for the rest of world, said Wilmans, because South Africa is one of the main global shipping conduits—through the ports of Durban and Cape Town.
Notorious for its criminal gangs and high crime rates, South Africa has also seen a 135 percent increase in kidnappings over recent months, said Wilmans. “It is a very worrying concern…. We’re seeing clients really having to look at their security protocols and then try to understand what that means,” he said.
Wilmans attributes this spike in kidnappings in part to the country’s dire economic situation and proliferation of violent gangs. He predicted that foreigners will also become targets of these kidnappers. “It is something of major concern,” he said.
The security situation in southern Africa is further threatened by an Islamic insurgency in neighboring Mozambique, Wilmans added.
India Back to Business
In India, mask mandates are in place, people arriving in the country are required to provide a negative COVID-19 test, and in terms of vaccinations, Wilmans said, India is doing “very, very well.” All this is in sharp contrast to earlier in 2021 when India saw its health system collapse under the weight of the infections and deaths caused by the Delta variant.
Despite this positive picture, Wilmans recommends companies seek guidance from their local partners to get a better sense of the latest, and frequently changing, restrictions related to the pandemic.
Cyber Threats Will Rise
Global Guardian’s experts describe 2021 as the year of ransomware. Cyber threats will only increase over the holidays and as people start to travel again, said Buckner. Nevertheless, Buckner said, “We’re still not sure firms have made the right choices and the right changes in these last 22-23 months.”
Living with the Pandemic
As the pandemic ebbs and flows around the world, companies struggle with how to get their workforce back into the office. Buckner said many employees may never return to the office. “The question becomes… what support do you owe, what is your duty of care to that employee that is never going to come to the office,” he asked.
Buckner said companies need to consider compensating their remote employees for the expenses associated with technology and internet service; ensuring the security of remote work platforms; and providing mental health support for their employees. “If you haven’t thought through that policy of the at-home worker and how that’s going to change your business and your benefits package… you need to get moving pretty quickly,” he said. “This is going to be narrative to corporate America that matters.”
Hopkins said companies are also only just beginning to grapple with the legal implications of when an employee is “at work.” This week a German court ruled that a man should be covered by his employer’s insurance after he fell and injured himself walking from his bed to his home office.
Hopkins contended: “What happens to one member of your organization reverberates through the whole organization almost instantaneously. And that ability to respond, to detect, remediate… that demand on the time from incident to response to being able to deploy just continues to be compressed.”
In offices, he said, security is going to have a much more integrated relationship with other department leads.
Buckner emphasized the importance of a plan that is well communicated and rehearsed. He said the pandemic has exposed the limitations of cheap, untrained guards; unmonitored surveillance cameras; insurance loaded with restrictions; and emergency response after the fact. “Ultimately, this has to be a coherent model. It has got to be integrated. And it has to be able to move in minutes and hours, not days and weeks,” he added.
Hopkins recommended three measures companies can take to better protect themselves:
- Provide proper duty of care to employees—this means not just protecting an asset and information, but also ensuring the mental resiliency of individuals. “Number one has got to be people,” he said.
- Review technological changes. Better understand the speed of change and impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning and how these technologies can be used by threat actors—who are not restricted by any rules—to cause damage.
- Enhance predictive analysis of threats. Try to anticipate where you need to be and what the risks might be. “You just have to anticipate that which cannot be anticipated,” he said.
Eventually, Hopkins said, “The bell is not going to ring and we’re going to declare COVID over. The truth is it is not going to end. It is going to continue into the next risk profile… If it is not COVID, it will be the next variant, the next virus, the next event.”
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