[ Question ]

Increasing personal security of at-risk high-impact actors

by meerpirat1 min read28th May 20203 comments


Cause Candidates

Did anybody consider providing personal security to key people with hightened safety risk as a potentially impactful intervention?

Now and then I hear about death threats against mildly prominent people that I consider doing very important work. For example this week, the most well known German virologist received a flask allegedly containing SARS-CoV2 in his mail [1], and earlier he reported online death threats. I wonder if there are studies on baserates of such death threats being realized, and if there is value in supporting people hire (or pushing goverments to provide) personal security earlier than they would do today.

Googling "how often are death threats realized" or "death threats statistics" didn't yield much for me, except a study that found that within "10 years, 44% of [613 tracked death] threateners were convicted of further violent offending, including 19 (3%) homicides." Of those 19 homicides, 5 were the initial death threat victim, i.e. ~1% of the death threats were later realized [2]. I didn't see more about victim statistics, but I expect that the majority of them to be somewhat close to the perpetrators, and not public people. The death threats came from people that were convicted of their death treat, which I expect makes it even less representative for people threatening others anonymously via mail or the internet.

I suppose providing more security could be very impractical and extremely costly. Though maybe there are some low-hanging fruits, like providing safety training, limiting risk exposure (e.g. delivering groceries, removing adress details online), or hiring someone that can assess the seriousness of a death threat better than the police.

I suppose this could also be a classic case of risks that only seem noteworthy because they are so graphic and easy to imagine. Anyway, I'd be interested in what you people think.

[1] https://www.swr3.de/aktuell/nachrichten/morddrohungen-lauterbach-drosten-100.html

[2] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/threats-to-kill-a-followup-study/71DC1D08B52A3E8D9D594EE781D0FAE4

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3 Answers

Some further thought:

Security threats in places less safe than Europe

I initially haven't thought about security threats of altruists in less safe places than my own. From my times at Amnesty International I know that activists and journalists in for example basically all of Latin America, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China have to face severe risks to their personal safety. It might furthermore be less costly to hire security in lower-income places. I have no further insight here, but it might be fairly easy to find key people in such areas that do highly valuable work and only due to lack of funding can't afford the safety that would be efficient here.

My feeling is that this is worth looking into more.
It seems to me that there has not been a lot of public written analysis of risks associated with poor operational security in each cause area and operational security in the EA movement itself.

One possible explanation for this would be that some people have done this analysis and decided to keep the results confidential.

Still, I would also be very interested to hear if people know of such analysis being done.

With regards to death threats being realized: From my experience in Colombia, while most death threats do not get realized, they still act as a strong deterrent, often by targetting family members instead of the main target. 

Hiring a security detail is not the only possible counter-measure though: The main focus of the NGO I was working with was to increase the political costs associated with this kind of violence, thereby decreasing it's cost-effectiveness.


Polling the community in the forum

While thinking about what kind of feedback I would find useful for this question (after a couple of people having upvoted and no comments so far), I would've found a cheap poll with options like "Definitely not worth looking into this further" or "Probably uninteresting, but an interested EA might look into this more" very useful here. I wonder if this was discussed before, seems like an easy to implement and useful feature for quick and dirty feedback. Maybe downsides could be giving a wrong impression of EA consensus due to selection effects (e.g. most informed EAs being less active readers of the forum), or less in-depth discussion because people that would otherwise have shared their thoughts now only participate in the poll?