October 1, 2016
OUT OF HARM’S WAY
By Holly Gilbert Stowell
When two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Brussels Airport on March 22, 2016, global intelligence services provider Healix International knew that its clients in the European nation could still be in danger.
“We immediately became aware that there was a potential for secondary attacks on other transport hubs and locations,” says Declan Meighan, global security director at Healix International. Using a tool called Geofeedia, which provides real-time, location-based data from social media, Healix was able to corroborate information about the attacks at the airport based on individual social media accounts. Using this tool, a bomb threat was identified at the Brussels Metro station, and Healix advised its clients to stay away from any transportation hubs. A third bomb would later go off at the station.
“We anticipated that there was going to be a secondary attack–that did happen–and it allowed us to quickly move people away from the threat and reduce the number of injuries and fatalities,” he says.
Healix, which specializes in international medical, security, and travel assistance services, came across Geofeedia while searching the marketplace for intelligence tools that pull data from social media feeds. The company was attracted to Geofeedia because it works off of location data, in addition to keyword searches, from social media users’ posts. Healix began using the tool in the summer of 2015 after completing training from Geofeedia.
“Anything that happens now, people are taking a photograph and posting it to social media. Geofeedia allows us to qualify from a number of different sources what actually is going on, and then send out requisite advice to our clients,” says Meighan. “It allows us to get a bird’s-eye view from multiple sources, not just one person.”
Meighan notes that the Arab Spring in 2011 proved the legitimacy of social media as an intelligence source. “Anybody who has a smartphone that’s in the middle of a protest, a strike, a rally, an incident that is posted on a number of social media sites, Geofeedia puts out intelligence instantaneously, which is so valuable to us as a tool.”
Healix International’s global intelligence analysts, who are assigned to different regions around the world, monitor Geofeedia to corroborate and qualify information on any event or incident that may affect its clientele. The keyword search allows analysts to drill down on a specific topic–or even a missing person.
Using an Internet browser, intelligence analysts at Healix log onto the Geofeedia Web portal, which resides in the cloud, with a secure username and password. From there, they can type in any address into the location tool that displays a map view of that location on the right-hand side.
After typing in a keyword or keywords, different colored “icons” that represent the social media platforms pop up indicating there has been a post that has those words in a description or caption. There is also a translate feature that turns the post into the desired language with the click of a button (more than 40 languages are available). On the right-hand side, a gallery-view of the posts shows up with small photos and captions. Users can then click on any of those previews to find out more information.
Geofeedia is sold as an annual subscription, which includes support. A live chat feature is available if analysts wish to connect with customer support at Geofeedia, or they can fill out a form and send it if the matter is not pressing.
Geofeedia users can also draw out a specific perimeter if they only want to deal with posts coming out of an exact location–an airport or a specific city block, for example. They can also set alerts to be sent by email immediately, hourly, daily, or weekly.
These features were useful when an American student who was traveling in Brazil had his cell phone and wallet stolen. His university in the United States, who had no knowledge of the theft, could not get in touch with him, and alerted Healix that the young man was missing.
“We kind of had an idea of the last-known whereabouts of this individual,” says Meighan. “Using Geofeedia, we put in as a keyword search the university name, and drew a geofence around the place where we knew he was.”
This keyword search led to a photo on Instagram in the feed. “Literally, within minutes, it just popped up–a photograph of this individual with his name and university,” notes Meighan. “He was with a group of other people, and one of them was the lady who posted the picture.”
The woman who posted the photo had her other social accounts linked to Instagram, and Healix contacted her over Twitter using its company account. Healix asked her if she could get the young man to notify his university of his whereabouts. “It was very useful and allowed us to find him quickly, and pacify the university that nothing more sinister than that had happened to him,” says Meighan.
Geofeedia also played a large role in helping Healix keep clientele safe during the Myanmar earthquake on April 13, 2016. A 6.9 magnitude quake struck, devastating the city and traditional communications infrastructure.
Healix wanted to keep its clients away from buildings that could still be susceptible to collapse in aftershock. It executed a “discovery” search in its location-based intelligence platform and identified places where other tremors were felt. Healix then alerted people to take precautions.
“You often find that in an event like an earthquake or an attack, people seek strength in numbers so they’ll naturally want to flock to an area where there are lots of other people,” he says. “Geofeedia allowed us to shepherd people away from those areas, and say ‘it might be better just to stay in rural areas for the time being, pass six or eight hours, and the buildings might become a little more stable.’”
Healix tries to keep the information being pushed to travelers as concise as possible. “The advice to a business traveler during one of these incidents has to be quite apt in the format–simple bullet points,” he explains. “If it’s more than two or three paragraphs long, then it will get lost in translation.”
The way the information is sent out is different for each client depending on what their needs are. Customers have the ability to receive location-specific security alerts via the company’s Travel Oracle mobile app, SMS, email, or all three platforms if required.
The team at Healix did have to work through a challenge with Geofeedia, Meighan says, because staff members weren’t used to the platform’s translate tool. For example, the team was monitoring an event in Saudi Arabia, and most of the social media posts were coming through in Arabic. Meighan says that Healix International’s response time was slower simply because people were attempting to figure out the translate tool. “The tool works very well, and if we had been a little bit more savvy we wouldn’t have been as slow to respond,” he notes, “but it’s a lesson learned and everyone knows how to use it now.”
Before Geofeedia, Healix relied on security partners around the world for much of the information they now receive from the platform. “In the past, we would have reached out to all our security partners, and we would be asking them to verify and corroborate what was being read on the news or if we could get it prior to being on the news,” says Meighan. With Geofeedia, much of that effort is eliminated because of the realtime updates from social media users.
But while Meighan notes that the tool is a great addition to its suite of intelligence resources, the company will continue to use multiple intelligence sources to support its clients. “If Geofeedia went down for some reason, if there’s a big technical issue, we can’t stop–our business doesn’t stop.”
Meighan says Healix verifies all information using a variety of sources. “From a security perspective you never rely on a single source of intelligence for information, you’ve got to have back-up sources where you can qualify and corroborate. We’ve got open and closed sources of other information that we still rely on heavily.”