Journal Article - Intelligence and National Security

Private sector intelligence: on the long path of professionalization

| Mar. 20, 2022

Over the past two decades, intelligence tradecraft has rapidly expanded in the private sector, focusing on both security risk mitigation and facilitating business decision-making. A robust transnational community of private sector intelligence practitioners has emerged, with representatives from airlines, financial institutions, technology companies, universities, major league sports, non-profits, and many other sectors. These practitioners are converging on a common identity and mission, but their brand is still developing, along with job titles and responsibilities. The emergence of professional groups and associations – with prominent recent examples including the Analysts’ Roundtables and the Association of International Risk Intelligence Professionals (AIRIP) – is a key step in this evolution. Private sector intelligence is on the path to professionalization, but the road is a long one. This paper identifies a gap in intelligence studies and seeks to build an understanding of the gradual professionalization of intelligence outside of government agencies.

Private sector intelligence refers here to applying intelligence techniques to external operating environments legally and transparently to facilitate strategic decision-making and mitigate geopolitical and security risks. The focus is on both protecting operations and assets and on supporting business decision-making. The goal of this article is to answer the question: under what conditions would private sector intelligence be considered a profession? This research examines the current state of private sector intelligence and analyzes it with reference to the literature on the process of professionalization, which has not yet been applied to this field.

Existing scholarship on other professions reveals that professionalization is not binary; it is a spectrum. While private sector intelligence is not a codified profession along the lines of law or medicine, it is progressing along that path. Five key indicators along the path of professionalization emerge from the existing scholarship: (1) a shared identity, (2) a body of knowledge and knowledge advancement, (3) an accepted code of ethics, (4) training and education based on accepted competencies and standards, and, finally, (5) certification and licensing. Some of these elements are emerging in the case of private sector intelligence, but there is a long way to go. At every stage the right questions must be asked about the benefit to the community and for the public – consumers and beneficiaries of private sector intelligence – given the role of public interest in driving professionalization.

This paper aims to contribute both to academic study of intelligence and to the private sector intelligence community’s body of knowledge by drawing on the author’s five years of empirical study of the field, including 75 practitioner interviews, participant observation at thirty conferences and meetings, and two transnational surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020.

This paper defines private sector intelligence, explains the methods underlying this project, and examines the current state of the field with particular reference to pathways to entry. It then identifies five key indicators of professionalization, drawn from the literature on national security intelligence and comparative studies of other professions, and analyzes private sector intelligence against each of these indicators. The goal of this research is to expand the understanding of present-day private sector intelligence as a field moving along the path of professionalization.

Defining private sector intelligence

In response to an uncertain global operating environment, firms are increasingly investing in intelligence teams, and there is a growing transnational private sector intelligence community. The nascent literature on ‘private sector intelligence’ or ‘private sector risk intelligence’ is not about private military contractors, espionage, or ‘guns, guards, and gates’. Rather, it is about private sector intelligence practitioners legally and transparently employing open-source collection to assess a variety of geopolitical, physical security, and sometimes cyber security risks.

Private sector intelligence teams can also support strategic decision-making. For example, if an energy company is exploring new market entry in Nigeria, executives might be concerned about corruption, kidnapping, pipeline tapping, piracy, and Boko Haram. The intelligence assessment would examine what threats would translate into real risks for the company, considering the company’s prospective vulnerabilities and the likely impact. Boko Haram would pose a credible threat to operations planned in Borno state, but not the Niger Delta, where more pressing concerns would be pipeline tapping, kidnapping, and piracy. New market entry support can also identify political instability and reputational concerns prior to investment. While some intelligence teams focus on strategic opportunity intelligence, most activity in the private sector intelligence field continues to be concentrated on risk and security.

About This Journal Article

Private sector intelligence: on the long path of professionalization
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Robson-Morrow, Maria. Private sector intelligence: on the long path of professionalization.” Intelligence and National Security, (March 20, 2022) .