Some days ago, new evidence showed up in the Uber's Waymo case. I won't talk about the situation per se, but what came to light was shocking.
Richard Jacobs, former head of Uber's Global Intelligence unit, explains in a formal letter, how Uber's Intelligence operations work.
The letter is worth reading. It covers, not only Uber's Intelligence unit's structure but what they did and how. Some revelations are shocking due to their illegality. Others are striking because of how advanced they are.
Uber's Intelligence operations went from data leak protection to counterintelligence, cyber attacks, covert operations and infiltration. The list is exhaustive.
I won't delve into the illegality of Uber's acts. Nor I'll defend them. What impressed me, above all, was the level of sophistication of the whole operation.
As I've mentioned before, our current world is highly connected. Such global stage enables world competition on a scale we haven't seen before. Business, as usual, doesn't cut it anymore. I've argued that to survive in the current competitive landscape, data and intelligence is a must.
Within this frame, having an Intelligence unit isn't such a crazy idea. Prominent organizations have had, for years, Market Research and Competitive Intelligence groups. In a way, they're the precursors of a capable Intelligence operation. Smaller companies have outsourced such capabilities on a need to basis. There is a small but profitable market for private intelligence agencies (PIA).
The Uber case highlights two things. The first one is that Intelligence operations aren't unique to corporations. The technology industry is becoming such a cutthroat space, where any advantage can have a massive impact.
"Jacobs was struck by the incredibly talented people at the company, the unmatched level of challenges and threats they faced and energized by the opportunity to build a holistic intelligence team, across the spectrum of threat intelligence, geopolitical analysis, and strategic insights. He would go on to build capabilities to serve a constantly growing community of interest at Uber, and deliver insights to shape engagement strategies, advise business decisions, and continually protect his colleagues and the community of riders and drivers they served in cities across the globe."
The second one is that outsourcing these operations isn't cutting it anymore. Building your own Intel unit is a necessity.
"These independent contractors were given the meaningless acronym LAT to protect discussions about this resource and poke fun at TalGlobal, a former vendor who provided intelligence collection support to Uber. LATs were seen as the opposite of Tal, who Uber had discontinued working with due to their low quality work."
Who needs Intelligence?
The question, though, is who needs this kind of intelligence? A decade ago only world corporations would need such services. Here are some factors that can determine if an organization needs Intelligence or not.
- Global footprint. Companies undergoing an expansion, such as growth startups, are an excellent example. There is a need to understand the geopolitics of each new country and region.
- Stiff competition. Organizations that operate on very competitive spaces need comprehensive competitive intelligence.
- Strategic leadership. The use of intelligence is the primary input of strategy, only companies that have a strategic thinking mindset will benefit.
- Well funded companies. Building an Intelligence unit entails an investment, both regarding manpower and tools.
How do you setup your Intelligence unit?
Intelligence units respond to the need for gathering information that serves a set of organizational goals. The first stage, before establishing any team is to have a distinct idea of what do you need the information for.
Once with a clear mission, we can set up the collection process. These are the inputs of the process. There are many ways of collecting information some of which are:
- Open-source intelligence (OSINT): Refers to data collected from publicly available sources.
- Human Intelligence (HUMINT). This is, intelligence gathered using interpersonal contact.
- Signal Intelligence (SIGINT). Refers to intelligence-gathering by interception of signals. These signals can be communications between people (COMINT) or from electronic signals not directly used in communication (ELINT).
The easiest to deploy is OSINT. It's not only free in most cases, but it's also legal. On the other hand, Human Intelligence can border illegality depending on the country and regulations. Signal Intelligence is by far the most expensive one. One that is certainly illegal for anyone except government intelligence agencies.
Information gathering has always existed, but organizations need to put particular attention on how they gather it. Some practices, while legal, border the unethical. Others are outright illegal.
Setting up a collection process isn't a one time exercise. The organization needs to create a stable, repeatable method to keep the information flowing. This includes not only the inputs but a way to store the data.
Once the collection process is in place, then we need to filter it. Collection will create an inhuman amount of information. The team needs to process the sources, normalize data, test its relevance, etc.
After cleaning the raw data, the unit integrates many pieces of Intel into a coherent picture. The assembled information will be then bundled under different formats, depending on the needs of the organization.
It's important to understand though, that Intelligence only informs decisions. What actions to take with the gathered Intel is management's prerogative. And as such, ethical questions rest upon executives and not the actual Intelligence.
Intelligence operations business case
How will a regular business take advantage of an Intelligence Unit? Here is a fictional example of the retail industry.
Imagine an international brick and mortar retailer. The business has a global footprint with multiple stores in many different countries. They want to keep hold and grow their current markets. At the same time, they want to expand beyond their present countries, opening new regions.
The top executives have decided to start a global Intelligence Unit to support all locations with on the ground Intel. Each country is expected to consume and factor in Intelligence reports from the unit.
These are some of the challenges they'll need to resolve.
- International footprint. Global operations require a constant pulse of what's happening in each country. A change of government or legislation can have significant consequences for the business.
- New openings. To proceed with their expansion, it's crucial for them to know where and when they should open a new shop.
- Strategic relocations/cost control. Maintaining a physical store is very costly. They need to keep an eye on customer displacement areas and potential opportunities to move within a different area of a city.
- Price analysis. The firm needs to keep their prices within competitive margins. They need to track the competition's prices, not only globally, but on a country by country basis.
- Competition analysis. It's important to know what the competition is doing. They want to predict potential threats like new store openings, offers, promotional events, etc.
- Information leaks. It's also vital to prevent critical leaks. They want to inoculate employees against poaching, information extraction or mystery shoppers.
The organization operates hierarchically. Information needs to flow from the headquarters to the regional managers, to the country managers, to the city managers.
The first step for the Intel team is to set up some collection processes. They want to be able to monitor specific things:
- Retail news feeds. They want to store all retail news for further analysis.
- Global news about each country. They'll be storing global news from each country. Both political and international.
- Real Estate news feeds. They'll keep track of all the new openings, relocations, and real estate offering feeds for each city they operate in.
- National Bureau of statistics. They want to store all macroeconomic metrics of each country they operate in. Unemployment rates, employment growth, GDP, education level, inhabitants growth, etc.
- Social Media feeds. They'll establish feeds for social media streams, both for the competition, as well as any brand mention or employee engagements.
- Competitor's web scrapping. They'll set up automated scrappers to detect changes on the competition's web. They'll also store product information and price information.
- Financial Reports. Whenever possible, they'll feed annual financial reports of the competitors in each country.
The team will also establish a small Human Intelligence operation. They will assess customer's buying patterns on the ground. They'll also act as mystery shoppers for other brands. This will allow them to establish competitor's metrics like top sales, customer estimation, average customer ticket, etc.
All the intel will be stored in an isolated and encrypted computer network. Access to it will require specific gear to prevent unauthorized access. This isolation will minimize any leaks if hackers compromise the corporate system.
- Filter systems. The team will filter each feed so it can highlight, through statistical models, potential leads. The filters will target competitors, the brand, employees, countries, cities, and potential competitors.
- Prediction models. The team will build prediction models that can use the filtered data to assess potential risks to the organization.
The team will create periodic reports that will send to the local heads. Each report will contain the following:
- Current geopolitical situation. A brief on the existing domestic situation highlighting the top news and potential threats.
- Potential relocation opportunities. Based on the analysis, possible new areas that can lower rental costs while maintaining a competitive location.
- Potential new locations. Analysis of likely new stores to open in the area.
- Price analysis. Price fluctuation of similar products in the country.
- Demography analysis. A study of the evolution of the target customer within the country. i.e., Evolution of tourism in the region or city. Top nationalities, top expenditures, etc.
- New competitors. Prediction of potential new competitors looking to enter the country or city.
- Competitor's strategies and statistics. Research on the top competitors with typical customer behavior, average ticket, customer type, etc.
The operation is an evolving one. The more information gathered, the more Intelligence can be generated. At first, the Intelligence team will push information to each local player. Initially, they also operate as sensors that determine what would be useful for the local organization. With time, they'll start incorporating new reports and intelligence based on the unfolding needs of each local team.
Conclusions on Corporate Intelligence
As I commented before, Intelligence operations aren't for big corporations anymore. Global competition, data gathering, and stiff competition are forcing organizations to be smarter. If your rivals are making informed decisions and you're not, you'll lose and become irrelevant.
The irony is, companies are already digitalizing their businesses and are incorporating more and more data. The need for data is allowing them to build comprehensive collection processes already. Some are already using it to create competitive Artificial Intelligence systems. Why not use it for Intelligence purposes too?
Leadership must enforce caution around building their Intel operations. Not everything is acceptable. Some methods are illegal or borderline unethical. Is imperative that organizations establish a clear ethical code around their Intelligence efforts. This will prevent unnecessary investigations or legal complications.
There is an information war happening as we speak. Those that don't arm themselves will be victims of the current information warfare. In the best case scenario, they'll see an erosion of their market share. On the worse case scenario, they'll be wiped out from the market. Don't wait. Start building necessary Intelligence capabilities now.