Keeping a Low Profile

Exploring three attributes of your profile that may increase the likelihood of you being targeted while travelling, and how you can mitigate this risk.

5 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 19 Jun 2023

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This essay was originally published in Dangerous Travels on 19 Jun 2023 and was updated on 26 Jan 2024

In the previous article, I outlined a typical targeting process used by threat groups. I emphasised the importance of avoiding being noticed by threat groups in the first instance. Once a threat group has noticed you and progresses through various steps in their targeting process, they become increasingly invested in the operation against you. At some point in the process, it becomes difficult for the group to stand down their operation.

One approach to avoid being noticed is to ensure that your profile does not attract the attention of threat groups. In this context, your profile refers to who you are ‘on paper’, not what you look like when you walk down the street. An intelligence agency is likely to target you based on your profile. If your profile is of particular interest, they may seek to validate their assumptions through technical and physical surveillance once you arrive at your destination. Similarly, a kidnapper will focus their efforts on individuals who meet specific profile criteria.

There are three attributes of your profile that may increase the likelihood of being targeted. Let’s explore each of these attributes, starting with the attractiveness of your profile.

Profile ‘attractiveness’

As you begin to analyse what makes your profile of interest to threat groups, it’s important to first consider the general attractiveness of your profile. In other words, what is it about your public profile that might catch the eye of a threat group?

Threat groups may find the following aspects of your profile interesting:

  • Your current or former place of work
  • Your current or previous access to classified material
  • Current or recent work on classified or sensitive projects
  • Work in a particular field or speciality
  • Your views on a particular topic
  • Your sympathies toward particular groups
  • Your connections within specific groups or communities
  • Your wealth
  • Your influence (your ability to achieve outcomes if leveraged)

These profile details are typically public and can be obtained through research, including information available on your social media profiles or in media articles. Such information may be reviewed during checks triggered by your visa application.

Different threat groups will be interested in different aspects of your profile. For instance, a criminal will be focused on your wealth, while an intelligence agency might be more focused on your access to sensitive projects or your associations with a local separatist group.

Note that potential vulnerabilities are not considered in this context. Your profile’s attractiveness is what will bring you to the attention of a threat group. If that group decides to target you, they will identify any vulnerabilities you have as part of their targeting process (as discussed in the previous article).

One aspect to consider is that your profile’s attractiveness is related to how you present yourself on paper (or, more correctly, on the internet). Ideally, unless they somehow recognise you, someone walking past you on the street at your destination would not know these things about you. Aside from perhaps being able to estimate your wealth, there will typically be nothing about your physical appearance that enables people to infer your knowledge and access.

Unless you are being actively monitored by criminal groups, typically only government agencies will know when you are planning to travel and when you have arrived in the country. Therefore, your primary concern when it comes to being targeted based on the attractiveness of your profile comes from intelligence agencies.

Profile ‘uniqueness’

In addition to profile attractiveness, the second important attribute to consider is the likelihood of being identified as a potential target based on the uniqueness of your profile within your operating environment. If your profile is of ongoing interest to threat groups in a particular location, the smaller the number of people moving in and out of the country who fit your profile, the more likely you are to be targeted.

For instance, if you are a German industrial automation specialist travelling to Iran, you would be one of a handful of people with that particular profile and thus could be considered unique. However, if you were a German industrial automation specialist travelling to China, you would likely be one of thousands. On the other hand, if you were an Australian journalist in China, you would find yourself in the extreme minority and would be highly likely to be targeted based on the uniqueness of your profile.

Profile ‘novelty’

If you work in an unusual field, there may be a certain degree of novelty associated with your identity, role, and activities within the country. Novelty is slightly different from uniqueness in that it implies a significant contrast with your surroundings.

The level of novelty you present will also be influenced by the characteristics of your destination. You may be considered novel in a particular location if there aren’t many people who visit that location with a similar profile to yours (ignoring your physical appearance for now). When you come into contact with people, they will be genuinely surprised to find you there.

A prime example of profile novelty would be a movie star visiting a refugee camp. Foreign aid workers regularly visit refugee camps, so it’s not uncommon for foreigners to be present. However, a movie star would be an unusual sight and would undoubtedly draw significant attention. A Western tourist in Syria is also novel given the low numbers of Western tourists in the country.

Managing our profile

What can you do about how your profile may appear to threat groups? Do you have any influence at all? Here are a few approaches you can take to manage your profile and reduce the likelihood of being targeted:

-Assume that people will be checking you out. Even before you board your plane, assume that some threat groups will be aware of your travel plans and may be assessing the risks and rewards of targeting you. -Avoid standing out from the crowd. When it comes to your online profile, try to blend in with others in your field. Ideally, make it appear as though you are one of many in a large field, rather than a unique individual operating in a niche. -Don’t telegraph your access. Don’t publish direct or indirect language that may suggest you have access to classified or sensitive materials. -Be mindful of your vulnerabilities. An intelligence service will target you based on your profile, but will cultivate and recruit you based on your vulnerabilities. Therefore, it is important to be aware of your vulnerabilities and take deliberate actions to ensure they are not publicly known.

These factors emphasise the importance of managing the information available about you online. If you don’t disclose information about a particular project you worked on, it will be difficult for threat groups to determine your involvement in that project. They would need to launch an operation targeting members of the project team to identify who was involved and what each individual was working on. Such an operation would be a time-consuming endeavour that would require approval based on current priorities and available budget. It’s much easier for them if you just list out your project history and access on your LinkedIn profile.

Wrap up

The attractiveness, uniqueness, and novelty of your profile can increase the likelihood of you being targeted by threat groups. To manage your profile, assume that people will be checking you out, avoid standing out, don’t telegraph your access, and be mindful of your vulnerabilities. Managing the information available about you online is crucial to reducing the risk of being targeted.

Thanks for reading.

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