Navigating 2020's threat landscape: Many risks, but also optimism

Navigating 2020's threat landscape: Many risks, but also optimism
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Over the past year, many unexpected and dynamic threats materialized that have challenged the stability of domestic and international security and safety. From the findings of the Mueller Report, confirming foreign interference in our national elections, to experiencing a record number of mass shootings in our communities, the broad spectrum of risks Americans face continued to grow in complexity. 

Despite the optimism that is characteristic of a new year, many challenges on the horizon could make the world around us more complicated and potentially more dangerous. 

With the start of this new decade, several issues ranging from rising acts of violence connected to hate and extremism, to complex and oftentimes undetectable disinformation campaigns will challenge our ability to remain resilient.   

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We expect that 2020 will bring forth both intrinsic and extrinsic risk factors that will increase exponentially many of the threats experienced in the past. However, while many risks may be familiar — or, in some cases, have become numbing because of high-risk incidents that dominate the news cycle — it is imperative to understand that the threat landscape is rapidly evolving at a pace not previously experienced. With a convergence of emerging technology, ideological motivations and attack stratagems, now is not the time to remain complacent to the risks that surround us.

Situational awareness and a comprehension of threat classifications are essential to developing  an all-inclusive perspective on 2020’s emerging threats. Here are some of the most critical risks we will face:

Mass attacks: Tragically, the United States is likely to experience more school shootings, workplace violence and other mass shooting incidents that have become all too common. Although we have come to understand the significant impact these incidents have on our communities and nation as a whole, the continued failure to solve the problem, or even address preventative measures, only compounds this risk factor. Partisan politics has superseded the need for solutions to these preventable tragedies. We must take the first step and begin to mitigate the consequences of these horrific acts. Initial measures include developing a universal background check standard and a nationwide database of stolen weapons, and prohibiting individuals on terror watch list from possessing a weapon. These should be simple accomplishments, yet they remain aspirational.

Data protection and privacy: With data breaches and cyber incidents ostensibly an everyday occurrence, the impact and magnitude of these events have become somewhat muted. 2019 brought a 33 percent increase in the number of reported breaches, with over 7.9 billion personal records exposed; thus, this is not a risk to be overlooked or diminished. Protecting one’s privacy and data will continue to be a challenge, especially with increasing system interconnectivity that hostile actors can exploit. Protecting what you cannot find remains a challenge as individuals and organizations struggle with understanding where personal data are stored and archived, and how these data are used.

Presidential election: Former special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russian interference in the 2016 election was the culmination of years-long campaigns to sow discord in the United States and undermine the democratic process. With another election ahead, we are feeling the long-term effects of this Russian strategy. Knowing that foreign intelligence services successfully breached our electoral systems, it would be naïve to think such an intrusion will not occur again. Absent a comprehensive national strategy to counter this ongoing threat, state and local governments must use information from the 2016 and 2018 elections as a baseline to understand threats facing their electoral systems. We need structured incident reporting and a data governance policy that is not subject to changes in the political landscape to ensure a comprehensive response to any breaches.

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Natural disasters: Global climate change and its correlation to the frequency and size of natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods means that we will experience greater impacts from these events. Although not the primary cause of natural disasters, climate change accelerates such threats and can make existing problems worse, scientific evidence has shown. There are consequences beyond the initial disaster recovery — among them, the insecurity, disruption and long-term impact to critical infrastructure systems. Communications, energy, transportation and manufacturing sectors remain vulnerable to natural disasters. To address the threat, the U.S. needs to reduce risk factors where possible and further strengthen the ability of communities to manage disasters. 

As this new year unfolds, it remains challenging to protect against these threats and others that we may face. We must accept that we will never live in a zero-risk environment. Awareness and understanding of the threat landscape allows us to address the potential impact of these risks. It is requisite that we eliminate political and organizational complexities that thwart or deter our ability to plan and respond to the most pressing risk issues. 

At the same time, our optimism should remain high for 2020. Our ability to become self-aware of the risks that surround us can insulate and prepare individuals from unpredictable and dynamic events.

Jonathan Wackrow is managing director of the global consulting firm Teneo, where he leads strategic and crisis communications campaigns. A former U.S. Secret Service professional, he served as a criminal investigator in New York City and on the Presidential Protection Division in Washington. He is a law enforcement analyst for CNN. Follow him on Twitter @JDWackrow.