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Forget Panic Rooms and Alarms, State-of-the-Art Security Is Now Insanely High-Tech—and Nearly Invisible

Stone walls and steel gates no longer cut it.

Biometric security lock on door Koonsiri Boonnak/Shutterstock

When German entrepreneur Daniel Giersch finalized his contentious divorce from American actress Kelly Rutherford, gaining custody of the couple’s two young children in 2009, he built a fortress to protect them. His sprawling 11,000-square-foot complex in the South of France includes high stone walls, reinforced steel gates, even a warren of secret escape tunnels. Though the nine-bedroom modern compound is priced competitively at around $14.25 million, its hostile exterior has left it sitting on the market for years, without a buyer in sight. “Realistically, no one wants to compromise their way of life” with bunker-like compounds, says Igor Kryuchkov, founder of T3 Risk Management, a boutique agency in Geneva, Switzerland, that specializes in protecting the assets (which include actual people) of some of the world’s wealthiest inhabitants. “They just want to add layers of security that won’t freak them out.”

Panic rooms are so last year. Successful people want to live 21st-century lives and reside on trendy Abbot Kinney in Los Angeles, in a condo in New York’s Tribeca or in a South Kensington flat in London, not cloistered away. They want to drive their Bugattis to school drop-off, and work, travel and even post photos on Instagram without fear of break-ins, stalkers or worse. At the same time, it’s a scary world out there: High-profile crimes, such as the armed robbery of Kim Kardashian West in Paris, and near constant cyber shenanigans have made even the low profile fear for their physical and virtual safety. As a result, a stealth industry of executive protection experts has cropped up to look after the world’s more than 2,100 billionaires and their slightly less wealthy peers. Modern private security firms are taking a high-tech, holistic approach, assessing threats to their clients’ homes, travel plans and cyber identities, as well as their actual physical selves and families. The goal is to create a safety net that’s all but impenetrable—yet almost entirely invisible.

Any private security firm worth its fee will begin the initial engagement with a client by doing a total risk assessment with the main asset and his or her family. “There is an old adage: How can you protect anyone if you don’t have your facts straight?” says Robert L. Oatman, founder of R. L. Oatman & Associates, a Maryland-based protection firm that’s been looking after wealthy families and major corporations since 1989. “None of us, including the client, knows where the risks and challenges lie [in advance]…. We take a 360-degree view of potential risks, estimate the level of risk to the particular protectee and then match security measures to the risk level.” Oatman recommends background checks, including credit and driving records, on every contractor, nanny, driver, pilot and chef, sometimes annually. “The contractor may have run into money trouble, legal trouble or serious driving offenses—not good signs,” he notes. He’ll explain where the client needs to tighten security, then implement a layered approach that might include emergency evacuation in case of natural disaster or terrorist attack. The plan may call for an armed guard on the property 24/7. But not everyone needs a knuckle-dragger around.

Increasingly, says Patrick Doherty, associate managing director of private client services at 10-year-old K2 Intelligence, clients with high-risk profiles don’t want huge walls or massive hedge rows: “They want open yards and low-slung walls, like their neighbors.” Doherty recommends landscape features that are designed for privacy and funnel unauthorized visitors to a limited number of access points, where they can be detected. Some architectural firms, such as Philadelphia’s KieranTimberlake, incorporate elements that are aesthetically—and physically—arresting. (See the firm’s blast-resistant glass sheath at the new US Embassy in London.) The Missouri-based fabricator Zahner crafts beautifully intricate metal and glass walls that double as security features and can even help a house withstand a fire. Landscape architects increasingly take into account property elevation, natural barriers and chic-looking bollards, experts say.

The new United States embassy based in Nine Elms officially opensNew US Embassy Opening, London, UK - 16 Jan 2018 The new United States embassy based in Nine Elms officially opens after relocating from the old site in Mayfair London. The new bulding was designed by Kieran Timbelake at a cost £750 million

KieranTimberlake’s blast-resistant glass sheath at the new US Embassy in London.  Amer Ghazzal/Shutterstock

Then comes the high-tech gear. Christian West, CEO of executive protection services firm AS Solution, likes to start by laying down a fiber-optic cable, such as one by OptaSense, that detects changes in acoustics. “You bury the cable around 12 to 18 inches deep around your property, and if someone comes within 30 feet of it, it sends an alarm and that also directs the cameras,” he says. He blends in heat-detection and night-vision cameras, all of which are hidden and use artificial intelligence and analytics to learn the difference between a falling leaf, an errant deer or an actual bad actor. Recently, for an A-list celebrity, West used a drone with a thermal payload to track down paparazzi hiding in the big compound’s tall grass. “The OptaSense cable gave the precise GPS coordinates to the drone,” he says, “so it knew where to direct our security team.”

Some residential surveillance systems have become so easy to use that Aaron Cohen, founder of security firm Cherries, which provides personal details to such famous faces as Kate Moss and Kardashian West (post-Paris), has even started taking along modestly priced Ring solar-powered cameras when traveling. He mounts a half-dozen of them inside and outside the client’s hotel room, which he can monitor via an app on his mobile phone. Ring competitors are coming fast: Honeywell spun off a new company called Resideo, which has released a whole line of security products for smart homes; newly launched Cocoon uses artificial intelligence to detect unusual sounds, then alerts your smartphone; and Dedrone has a counter-drone system that can detect and mitigate rogue drones that enter a property’s airspace.

Should someone get past the perimeter, security solutions are now abundant. IntelliVision will capture and trace the license plate of any incoming cars. Biometric locks by Princeton Identity use facial recognition to open doors, while SekureID requires just the touch of a finger. Strangers can’t gain entry into a condo building filled with moguls if developers employ FST21’s nearly unhackable keyless entry, called Digital Doorman, which detects residents’ identity through biometrics without them even slowing down their pace. Just about any house or apartment security system will allow owners to program a duress code, which disarms the alarm but also surreptitiously calls the police. Lighting systems can be programmed to turn on in the evening while homeowners are on vacation. Generators and satellite phones act as backups during unforeseen natural disasters, an increasing concern of clients worldwide, according to experts. And the list goes on. “With Alexa, Google Home, SimpliSafe and longtime vendors like ADT adding video doorbells and cybersecurity to their offerings, we’ve seen robust growth in connected-home security solutions in the past year,” says Will Wise, group vice president of security events at Reed Exhibitions and the head of its ISC West, the biggest physical security and public safety event in the US. The connected-home area of the expo floor at ISC West has doubled since 2017.

Robbers or kidnappers likely won’t make it inside these tech fortresses, but if they do, they might find themselves lost in a fog. Several companies, including ADT, make fog machines that produce a haze so thick it cuts visibility to as little as 10 centimeters, while doing no damage to the building’s contents. Art Guard has patented a Magnetic Asset Protection system; owners simply affix small magnets to valuables and the system’s sensors will detect the tiniest of movements (and alert authorities) while minimizing false alarms. Thus far, parents have yet to tag their young children or rebellious teens with radio-frequency identity chips like they do their dogs, but you never know: Three Square Market in Wisconsin is working on a next-gen microchip for human implantation that will be able to track movements via GPS and a little bit of cell or satellite signal. Kidnappers, be warned.

Cocoon Security Camera

Cocoon Security Camera  Neil Godwin/Future/Shutterstock

We’ve never been more connected globally, which means we’ve never been more vulnerable to cyber threats that can have catastrophic consequences. Juniper Research estimates that 12 billion records were swiped globally last year and that the figure will grow to 33 billion annually in four years. Some 16.7 million US consumers experienced identity fraud in 2017, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, amounting to about $16.8 billion stolen. And you’re not immune: Passwords can be compromised, bank accounts can be hacked, travel plans can be made public, and Social Security numbers can be pilfered. A hacker taking over your social media account can irreparably damage your reputation, not to mention your company’s stock price.

Which is why firms such as WorldAware offer real-time threat analysis and global cybersecurity, a $120 billion industry. “We provide the same services as government intelligence agencies but with the ability to drift overtly and legally among various nation-states,” says the company’s founder, Bruce McIndoe. Long before he helps negotiate a ransom for a kidnapping or steers a client away from rioting about to break out, he implements a few essential strategies: He gives each client at least two phones. One is a burner, “so when they go to China or elsewhere…there’s nothing on there that can be compromised,” he says. The second is the client’s everyday phone, through which his team monitors location. He loads an enterprise security message app, such as Silent Circle or Signal, onto each phone and encourages a light presence on social media when traveling. Even so, bad things can happen: In one two-week period in winter, two naturalized American clients originally from China were detained by authorities there, and his team negotiated their release.

McIndoe also recommends building what he calls a digital persona, which masks real information, thus protecting clients from hacker breaches: a Google Voice number, which can filter out not only spam from your mobile phone but also any callers not from your chosen circle; an email address that doesn’t use your real name; a virtual mailbox that can forward snail mail anywhere in the world or scan it to read digitally; and an account with Privacy.com, which sets up burner credit card numbers for internet transactions that make a person’s true identity almost impossible to detect. “No one can charge anything against my assets,” says McIndoe, who worked with the NSA and CIA. “So when anything happens, like the Starwood breach, I don’t care. There’s nothing out there that will hurt me.”

K2 Intelligence’s Doherty reminds his clients who work at home that every device is like a radio, transmitting data—which means home owners should decide whether the convenience of an Alexa is worth the risk of having a listening device on at all times, he says. Whether they choose a smart speaker or not, every strong home network should have a corporate-grade firewall and a miniaturized network security monitor, with a segregated network for guests. “You also want a VPN to encrypt data,” Doherty says. One solution favored by experts is Fortinet, a cybersecurity software and services provider, which protects connected devices and cloud servers and uses predictive analytics to detect and neutralize hacks and malware. Check Point and SonicWall are also popular business firewalls that translate well to home use. Reassessments of cybersecurity should be performed at least annually to maintain a strong defense, most experts say.

Timothy Youngblood, a cybersecurity veteran who has worked with highly visible CEOs such as Michael Dell, says all the best firms will keep a constant threat-analysis watch on the Dark Web. “We team with companies to set up key words centered on the client,” he says. Any time chatter about Dell or his family spiked, he’d receive an alert, isolate the origination point, then determine if a beefed-up physical presence was required. Youngblood and his colleagues also keep tabs on social media, using a variety of tools, including Social Searcher and Sprinklr, to assess the number of vengeful references. When in doubt, he hires Securitas to provide physical guards. Sometimes, you still need a gorilla to scare away the bad guys.

All that being said, notes Cherries’ Aaron Cohen, if someone makes her living off Instagram sponsorships, as his client Kardashian West does, and she is charging millions for every post, “that’s her job—so her digital security better be even better.”

Google Search Laptop

Shutterstock / Africa Studio

For travel to exotic destinations, experts encourage private jets, but security on the move is constantly changing. McIndoe’s WorldAware has 110 intelligence analysts in four operations centers around the world who track threats and plot flight plans accordingly. Youngblood gives his high-profile CEOs loaner laptops with no essential documents on them—and no connections to companies’ main servers—for trips to unstable countries. “The security detail keeps an eye on the devices, but they lose contact when the devices go through airport screenings—and we usually find malware on them,” he says. Programs such as Cylance use AI to improve anti-malware software, but cyber viruses, like living ones, are quickly adaptable and tricky to impede.

Even though Cohen works with conspicuous clients, he rarely sends them from airports to hotels to fashion shows in armored vehicles. “You don’t need all that unless you’re going to Iraq or Syria, where the average baller is not going,” he says. Instead, he advance-teams hotels by sweeping them with a technical counter-surveillance crew on the hunt for listening devices, then installs cameras and hires security guards trained in predictive-behavior profiling and hand-to-hand combat. At least one guard follows the client in a counter-surveillance vehicle and keeps an eye on entryway doors during meetings.

Founded in the 1850s, Michigan-based Pinkerton, much like WorldAware, specializes in comprehensive risk management in foreign places and in offering real-time threat advisories that it can send to clients’ satellite phones if cell service has been knocked out. If there is a terrorist attack or other emergency, Pinkerton will tell clients to shelter in place until they can be evacuated or head to the airport in a provided car. “We monitor hundreds of data sources, including weather alerts, government emergency feeds, social media, news outlets, live web-cam feeds and emergency service communications and filter that into intelligence that can be used to direct our boots on the ground,” says Pinkerton vice president James McClain. “If you’re a frequent international traveler, especially to hot zones of unrest, and you
hire a company that is not global, you are at a disadvantage.”

K2 Intelligence goes a step further and provides clients with pre-travel intelligence reports. “We assess on-the-ground conditions, potential political turmoil, boycotts at the hotel or on the road, potential for violence, national protocols on health,” says Doherty. His team prepares an emergency plan for kidnapping, maps the fastest route to the nearest hospital and determines the best spots for evacuation should the need arise. Medical evacuations are the most common, and Doherty says his team is always prepared for them. He recently created an intelligence report for a client traveling to Latin America, where his team pinpointed the nearest reputable English-speaking hospital as well as medical-evacuation services through a partner firm. Good thing: “Our client suffered a particularly rough fall, breaking several bones, and was transported to our recommended hospital by his close-protection security team,” he says. There it was determined that the client would need surgery. “Fortunately, our pre-travel planning included medical evacuation, and at no cost to the client, he boarded a dedicated flight to the US to receive top-tier care.”

Doherty also determines whether a well-known client’s trip is being publicized online, thus leaving the home vulnerable and requiring beefed-up security. In high-risk places or emerging economies, K2 Intelligence sets parameters for a specific target and assesses threats in that area, whether a city, a neighborhood or a convention center. The firm also hires vetted drivers trained in defensive driving and at times uses bullet-resistant cars. Covert, close security dress in suits and pose as business associates—and rarely leave the client’s side.

But even the wealthy who have fewer place values in their net worth can sign up for a digital version of what K2 Intelligence and Pinkerton offer. Newly launched app CloseCircle monitors users’ exact locations and sends alerts about, say, rioting. In case of a true emergency, a panic button prompts a human response— no matter how remote the client is. “If the worst case happens, CloseCircle deploys bodyguards and orchestrates evacuations,” says COO Chris Job. “We are a virtual emergency response team.”

In the modern era, regardless of the client’s celebrity status or net worth, experts say the best security is unseen. “Executive protection is usually provided in a low-key, under-the-radar fashion that a protectee may never see, but that we can step up quickly if risk spikes,” says Robert Oatman. “Good protection doesn’t sell fear. It sells the opposite: freedom from fear.”

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