In an age where headlines scream things like "Terrorist Gunman On French Train,""Shooting Leaves 9 Dead," or "Hackers Steal $1 Billion In Massive Worldwide Breach," it's very easy to become trapped in a state of semi-permanent unease believing that death and destruction lurk around every corner... or worse, to become completely numb to the complex realities of personal and national security in the 21st century.
The threat doesn't stop there, however. With dramas like the Ashley Madison breach, which not only compromised the financial information of some 37 million customers of the popular extramarital dating site, but went so far as to make public the names and email addresses of the victims, unfolding, more and more attention is being paid to the ineffectual security of companies entrusted to protect confidential information.
To complicate matters, concerns about domestic intelligence agencies collecting data from cell phones and intelligence derived from surveillance programs have some people deeply worried that the intimate details of their personal lives are not safe from the government.
As candidates begin to mount their campaigns for the 2016 presidential election, these fears along with concerns about border security, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, tensions between citizens and police, and "homegrown" terrorism have found their way into the national spotlight, underscoring a collective anxiety in the heart of the American public.
This serves candidates very well: the promise of a state that will protect them from a nebulous array of threats and boogeymen is a powerful motivation to vote for someone.
The problem is that any fear largely based on ignorance only makes you weaker. It makes you less safe. Not understanding the realities of a threat nearly guarantees that you will overreact or underreact when faced with an actual threat.
In an effort to try to clear up some of that ignorance, we sought out a professional for his thoughts on privacy and terrorism in the 21st century.
We contacted former Navy SEAL and former CIA Counter-Terrorism Center clandestine service officer "Frumentarius."
Frumentarius — the name he uses as a writer — is currently a firefighter in the Midwest. In addition to his experience as a SEAL and a CIA CTC officer, he also has a bachelor's degree in international politics and a master's degree in history.
He's written on topics ranging from physical fitness, military affairs, and life as a father to his sons as a contributing editor for the highly-regarded website SOFREP, which offers news and analysis from military and special operations veterans and whose writers have been cited and syndicated by Business Insider, among others. He also maintains a public Twitter account (as SOFFru1) that is well worth following.
One article in particular, however, deserves particular attention.
"Another 9/11 is Not What America Should Be Afraid Of," published on SOFREP in October of last year, describes the types of attacks recently seen both stateside in the various "lone wolf" or "terror cell" attacks, like the one carried out against the Marine recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tennessee this July and around the world, such as the "Charlie Hebdo" murders and the recent attack on a train bound for France.
Of these types of attack, Frumentarius writes:
"We are naive if we do not think such attacks are being considered in the world's jihadist circles. These are the attacks that cripple countries, demoralize people, and bring down governments. These relatively small-scale infrastructure attacks, coordinated with mass shootings, bombings, and knifings, would be devastating."
He allowed us to interview him via email.
A Plus: The biggest threat to personal, as well as national, security is that people continue to anticipate "yesterday's wars." What do you think the future of terrorism/asymmetrical warfare looks like, insofar as a domestic threat spectrum goes?
Frumentarius: I think it involves small scale, one- to two-man attacks on civilian infrastructure and soft targets along the lines of the attacks in Paris, Mumbai, Kenya, and other places around the world. It is not necessarily the large-scale attacks of the past. I wrote about it on SOFREP, in an article titled "Another 9/11 is Not What America Should Be Afraid Of" . I truly think that is the next step in the evolution of the terror threat we face these days.
(Anne Knight, via Wikimedia Commons)
A Plus: There are still incredibly soft targets in the American transportation infrastructure, particularly when it comes to airports and mass transit. How might authorities begin to harden potential targets without creating new ones in the form of densely packed waiting areas?
Frumentarius: Good question. It goes to the point, are we really ever going to be able to harden our targets to the point where we are invincible? I would say, no. But, as you are now seeing at some movie theaters, for example, where there is a police presence and they search bags, we can make it just a little more difficult for these attacks to kill MORE people. If we can shut them down before they start, or immediately after the first shots are fired, then we can do better. That is probably the best (first) step.
When it comes to personal security and physical safety, mindset is key.
A Plus: What's the absolute worst breach or neglect of personal safety and security you think that the average person commits on a daily basis, whether at home or outside in the world?
Frumentarius: On a daily basis, I think the worst thing people can do is let their level of awareness drop to GREEN, as opposed to staying on YELLOW or even ORANGE. In other words, people assume their surroundings are safe -- be they a train, plane, church, or a website -- and act as though they are safe there.
In reality, especially these days, we are constantly facing the possibility that our environments will become instantly threatening, whether it be to our financial well-being, or even to our lives. We should all be vigilant, all the time. It is just a sad fact of modern life.
"See threats, or potential threats, everywhere, and you will be ready when they appear. "
A Plus: For some people, no threat is viable enough to convince them. A reader currently tasked with coordinating protection for a difficult client asks "how do you protect someone who doesn't want to have security when their safety is essential to the running of a business or government?"
Frumentarius: It is hard to protect someone who doesn't want to be protected. The best you can do might be to give them as wide a berth as they require/demand, while maintaining the security bubble at the closest possible distance. If that is all they allow you to do, as a security specialist, then you have to work with that limitation. Keep trying to convince them, though, when you think they are making mistakes or putting themselves at risk.
His thoughts on privacy and cyber-security next.
A Plus: As a former Navy SEAL and clandestine service officer with CTC, you have a unique perspective on privacy/anonymity. How have your professional experiences influenced your daily life? How much attention do you pay to privacy as a matter of personal security?
Frumentarius: I take my own privacy very seriously, and understand all too well the power of knowledge for those meaning to create havoc, engage in theft, and/or simply act in a nefarious manner for shits and grins. What I mean is, someone who wants to hurt you can easily do so once they know a few details about you. It does not mean they WILL hurt you in some way -- financially, emotionally, physically, or 'reputation-ally' -- but they could. I take that seriously, as should everyone.
In my own case, the CIA has given me permission to divulge in true name that I worked for the Agency under cover, in the clandestine service. Even though they have permitted me this, it does not mean that I go around shouting it to the rooftops. I keep it close-hold, for the sake of my family and loved ones, whose association with a known CIA officer could possibly endanger them.
A Plus: We discussed privacy measures months before the Ashley Madison debacle and the fallout from that has just begun. In terms of digital footprints, what measures, if any, can be taken as far as damage control after events like these?
Frumentarius: I don't think there are any measures that can totally protect us online, except for staying away from sites that are clearly and obviously attractive targets (like Ashley Madison). Really, though, it is a constant battle between the openness and ease of digital life, and the danger of putting your data out there on the internet. I am guessing better cyber security is really the only viable, long-term solution.
A Plus: There's a lot of talk about privacy on the internet, but few people actually seem willing to take the extra steps in order to secure themselves online. What do you think are the bare minimum things that everyday people should do to harden themselves against privacy invasions?
Frumentarius: Be careful who you friend, follow, accept as a follower, correspond with, and share information with on the internet. It is really as simple as that. Do not give out personal data/information if you do not truly KNOW someone online. I would also never respond to an invitation to meet in person unless you take extreme precautions to know who it is you are meeting. There are also the basics: never give out social security numbers, bank info, personal info, or passwords to an email/request that came to you. If your bank needs info from you, like a password, they will not email you asking for it.
Of course, there are many more steps one can take to insure privacy on the net. Everything from anonymous browsers to encrypted email systems and beyond. It really depends on just how lock-tight you want to be.
Frumentarius does still enjoy life on the edge.
A Plus: You're currently a firefighter. After serving in the SEAL Teams and then with CIA CTC, how has your mentality changed, if at all, in approaching what must sometimes seem comparatively mundane? What do you miss about your former professions? What don't you miss?
Frumentarius: Part of the reason I chose firefighting is because it really never is mundane. Every shift is different, with the possibility of a life or death scenario playing out, either for a patient, in an EMS scenario, or for ourselves, in a fire. I love the variety and excitement of the calls, and thoroughly enjoy the service to the community, and the challenge.
Frumentarius (cont.): I miss the national level-significance of the CIA job, in which we were playing on the global stage every day. Regarding the SEAL Teams, I miss the men with whom I served, and the sense of "team" present in serving in a SEAL Platoon. I also miss the shooting, diving, fast roping, jumping, and other fun shit we did as SEALs, in training and in operations.
A Plus: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about CIA and other domestic intelligence agencies that civilians have?
Frumentarius: Well, they think CIA officers, and the NSA, and the federal government in general, WANT to spy on Americans. They really do not. They want to do their job, and protect American interests and lives, and sometimes that means bumping up against Americans' civil liberties. That does not mean that the intelligence agencies always do the right thing, or should win out in a fight between national security and civil liberties, but for the most part, they are TRYING to do the right thing. Americans should understand that. These people are patriots, like they are.
"Also, we are not all Jason Bourne. There is a lot more writing than hand-to-hand combat."
A Plus: What's the most unexpected thing you learned about yourself and other people during your time in the Navy and at CIA?
Frumentarius: I learned that people join up for all kinds of reasons, but really, to a man and woman, they were/are there to serve the United States and its people. Underlying all other reasons people take those jobs, deep down, they all want to serve and play a role in keeping Americans safe, and America strong. Sounds simplistically patriotic and trite, but it is true.