The “Fake News” Era
The term “fake news” has lately gotten significant traction in the business world, the political realm, and among the public. Alongside, the reliability of sources has been a hot topic for discussion. While people are entitled to believe what they want (regardless of how true the information is), untrustworthy sources have presented countless security risks. In days leading up to the U.S. presidential election, an individual from North Carolina targeted Comet Ping-Pong, a pizza joint, after he read an article which stated that Hillary Clinton and her administration were part of a child-abuse operation based in the back of the restaurant. The individual ultimately traveled to Comet Ping-Pong and fired three shots, luckily without causing any injuries.
Though nothing suspicious was found at Comet Ping-Pong, it created a massive threat when the perpetrator internalized the information and took matters into his own hands. This instance reminds us that, as intelligence analysts and protection specialists in the security industry, it is essential that we evaluate the credibility of our sources to better serve our clientele. The same process can also be used throughout the corporate security world in evaluating vendors and partners, as well as for internal purposes.
Evaluating Source Reliability
Although conducting analysis is—surprise—the bread and butter of analysts, we always determine the credentials and validity of sources before going any further. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few of the issues that we confront and question when considering a source:
- Qualifications – qualifications are the most obvious signal of a trustworthy source for analysts so we always ask: is the author of a news or information source an expert on the issue? What experience or training qualifies the individual or organization to speak or write on a particular topic?
- Objective – analysts also take into account the objectivity and possible bias an author may have. While prejudiced sources can be helpful for seeing a line of argument, analysts must be careful to not overuse biased sources and should instead look for ones that offer a counter-argument. Domain extensions can be a helpful starting point for looking at objectivity. Websites linked to a U.S. federal agency (.gov), for example, are more likely to be reliable compared to a “.com” or a “.org,” which may have commercial and advocacy goals.
- Tone – analysts should be able to determine the tone of the source, as the manner in which the author writes or speaks is very important. Grammar, style, and level of formality should all be taken into consideration.
- Level of Detail – analysts look for sources with just the right amount of necessary detail. While more description (especially “on-the-ground” information) is usually better than too little, excessive detail can sometimes suggest information that is poorly processed.
- Timeliness – while the source may seem perfect and relevant, analysts must always check when the piece was published. The source should be regularly updated, and complete with working links.
Reliability and Due Diligence
Many of the issues analysts confront when evaluating source reliability are comparable to the issues facing security directors, risk managers, and HR professionals when they conduct due diligence as part of their daily activity. Thorough investigations of employees, vendors, or partners is, in fact, a similar process to finding good sources. Companies should therefore consider some of the same elements when conducting their due diligence assessments:
- Qualifications – look at the credentials of the employee, vendor, or partner. Does their experience and training stack up with what you expect your needs are? Remember that qualifications can be faked, so ask for references and carry out a quick investigation whenever possible.
- Objective – when talking with prospective hires or partners, it is important to understand why they do what they do. In the intelligence world, impartial objectivity is the ideal goal. In due diligence, it is merely important that objectives and goals align with your organization.
- Tone – just as informal writing can indicate inadequate reliability (or the need for further confirmation of information), poor speaking can sometimes highlight lack of professionalism. Be sure to listen carefully as you interview.
- Level of Detail – the details a candidate or potential partner reveals while in communication with you are useful to keep in mind. Too quiet and they may have something to hide. Too talkative and your confidential information may be compromised in the future.
- Timeliness – the timeliness of communications prior to employment or partnership is also a good indicator of things to come, so be sure to track how robust the back and forth is between you and the party in question. As with intelligence analysis, you should make sure that that your partner’s experience is up to date with industry standards.
Thoroughly investigating your partners and potential colleagues sometimes requires deeper digging and the potential solicitation of investigation service providers, especially if the investigation is international. In such a case, make sure to keep in mind the same shortcuts and start by looking at the qualifications.
Danny Panton is an intelligence analyst at AT-RISK International. He has extensive experience in conducting background and threat assessment investigations as well as corporate due diligence. Panton is also closely involved in analyzing global travel risk and security.