Insights Nigel Fairbrass

Better call security

Whether increasing demand for private security is driven by a fear of crime or crime itself, it’s a bitter irony that an industry which is nominally there to offer the public protection is too often considered to be part of the problem

The security industry has always suffered from an image problem. From thuggish bouncers working nightclub doors, to former intelligence officers trading out of discreet Mayfair offices, questions of ethics, training and accountability have dogged a business which generally does its best to stay out of sight. Recent growth however, is making the industry rather more difficult to ignore.

Globally the private security industry is forecast to exceed sales of $240 billion by 2020, on the back of 6% annualised growth. That’s nearly twice the forecast growth rate of the global economy and comfortably ahead of expected growth in sectors such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, electronics or tourism. Contrast that with Home Office figures released in January revealing that 121,929 police officers were employed across 43 forces in England and Wales as of September last year. This is the lowest number since records began in 1996 and is dwarfed by the 500,000 people now estimated to work across the UK’s private security sector.

Whether increasing demand for private security is driven by a fear of crime or crime itself, it’s a bitter irony that an industry which is nominally there to offer the public protection is too often considered to be part of the problem. At a time of ever greater polarisation in society, fuelled by resentment at inequalities of wealth and prospects, the challenge for the security industry is therefore to avoid becoming a by-word for division. It must avoid siding with the interests of the few against the many and develop a new narrative of inclusion.

In some respects, the industry only has itself to blame for its current predicament. Security is an absence of harm, but it’s also a positive psychological state with a measurable social value. In societies and economies that enjoy good security, companies are more likely to invest, people are more likely to go out, entrepreneurs will take more risk and innovation is more likely to occur. In protecting property rights, it’s a cornerstone of any liberal market economy.  Too often, however, the security industry can’t see beyond the end of its own input – the person, the camera, the fence or the lock – and it appears indifferent to the output it creates, such as value protected or more importantly wider value enabled. Such a commoditised view of the category is born out in business models that have changed little in decades. Whereas technology or smart building design might now solve simple security challenges inexpensively, the industry response is still typically to provide a warm body in a uniform.

By its nature, transparency in a security business is also complex. There are legitimate operational reasons for secrecy to avoid putting lives and assets at risk. If you work in a facility which stores hundreds of millions of pounds in cash, you don’t advertise that fact in the pub. There is a risk however, that what begins as justifiable operational discretion breeds a more malign, cultural insularity.  Over time this can leave companies resistant to change and suspicious of the outside world.  As institutions of all hues grapple with the radical transparency being driven by digital publishing platforms, the values and culture of security companies, like many others, will be tested and potentially found wanting.

Despite its historic reliance on people-power, the security industry may well be forced to confront the same automation revolution which now challenges other sectors.  High definition cameras linked to machine-learning databases are not only cheaper than people, they are increasingly more reliable.  They have perfect recall, they are constantly updating their understanding of what normal looks like in a given environment, and they don’t fall asleep or call in sick.  In time you are more likely to be challenged by a remotely-operated drone when approaching a boundary than by a human with a torch.  But while a shift from people to technology-led business models removes the issue of human fallibility, it poses a host of new and intractable questions for the industry around privacy, oversight, control and accountability.

The security industry may argue that it has always endured, from Shakespeare’s drunken watchmen to today’s equivalents in high vis jackets.  But in an era where progressive brands and businesses have a clear sense of their social utility and value; and where their humanity and values are as much a part of their product as the goods and services that they sell; it’s hard to imagine a sector more vulnerable to the changing expectations of society.  Better call security.