Security Screening in the 21st Century: An Interview with Mark Sullivan, former U.S. Secret Service Director
By Melissa Cohen, vice president of marketing
Earlier this month, I sat down with Mark Sullivan, security industry consultant, former director of the United States Secret Service from 2006 to 2013, and board member for Evolv Technology. We discussed how the threat landscape has shifted in recent years and what people screening should look like today and in the future.
Melissa Cohen: Mark, you have an extensive background in security and have watched firsthand as security threats have evolved over the years. Is the world getting more dangerous? How has the shift in the threat landscape enabled attackers to carry out more mass casualty events?
Mark Sullivan: I understand why many people have anxiety about our world today and perceive it as becoming more dangerous. All too often we are witnessing the horror of terrorist attacks occurring around the world. In our own country we experienced the devastation and pain caused by mass shootings at schools, at the workplace and even houses of worship. These attacks are happening in open areas where historically we have felt safe and there wasn’t a need for any type of security.
Mental health issues, hate, radicalization and the ease of acquiring weapons, in most instances high powered shoulder weapons, has created a situation where they’ve kind of spawned off of each other. Potential attackers may see what other people have done with weapons and decide that’s not a bad way to go. They might even calculate that they won’t make it out alive – and if you’re dealing with someone who’s not concerned with being killed that’s a difficult adversary to stop.
MC: Given these threats, what types of businesses are you seeing conduct more people screening and how has this evolved? Are there any types of organizations for which screening is not a good option?
MS: There are a variety of businesses and organizations I have worked with that are concerned with the safety of their employees, congregations, patrons, fans, clients and contractors. They are also concerned with their brand and want to protect that as well. Today more and more buildings are checking your ID, taking your picture, directing you to an elevator and controlling where that elevator is going. This level of screening wasn’t happening 20 years ago and becomes more common every day.
However, for many types of businesses like hotels, it’s difficult and cost prohibitive to control every single exterior door with a security officer or to conduct sweeps of every piece of luggage entering the hotel. We all want to feel safe, but what is the impact of securing every door, or the process of screening every piece of luggage? And at what cost to the visitor experience. For example, would it increase hotel room prices? What kind of process would that create for checking in? Any organization has to weigh the risks to experience with the benefits of enhanced security. Something like TSA PreCheck is a great model for cutting down on the risk, but we do need to streamline the process for people who don’t need to be screened every single time.
MC: Along those lines, what should the screening experience look like for consumers and organizations?
MS: I think there’s a fine line between doing nothing and recommending we hunker down because there’s a perceived threat or boogeyman around every corner. We live in a democracy. People want their freedom. We don’t want to deal with security every place we go.
From the consumer’s perspective, 20 years ago, we never gave any thought to having screening at a professional sporting event. Now you go to a college game and you’re screened. What’s unthinkable not long ago is now commonplace. Today, part of the experience of going to a show or a game is planning for how long it will take to go through the scanning process. Similarly, from a business or venue’s perspective, they’re looking at their overall security plan and constantly reevaluating whether they need to have screening for their Broadway show or cruise ship or at the train station. For these “nontraditional” types of venues, it’s a matter of choosing the right technology and the right level of hassle-free screening to still allow for a superior visitor and employee experience.
MC: Do you think society can afford to not have more screening? What’s the right way to go about it to balance experience, risks and the changing threat landscape?
MS: Well, it’s really not just about having people physically screened. It’s also about having the appropriate information or intelligence to make informed risk management decisions. For example, in a business setting, many companies today are doing more to monitor not only what is occurring outside of their business but also within their business. One of the biggest risks to a business or organization today is the “Insider risk or threat.” Many businesses are continually updating their databases on employees to keep an eye out for potential risks and watching what they do on social media. There’s so much internal and external data and information companies need to be aware of now.
For all businesses and organizations considering employee screening, it’s important to work with the right security partner who understands there are different types of threats, and different mitigation strategies for each individual threat. You have to consider people, brand, profile, policy, procedures – there is no one silver bullet that will protect you fully. You need a robust security plan, and the appropriate technology to support it.