Security in an Insecure World

Maintaining Awareness in All Aspects of Your Life

I felt sick when I saw my mom’s helpless look. She was in my living room, on the phone with my sister. My sister was back in New Hampshire checking on my parents’ house while they were here in Knoxville visiting me. I was having a beer with my father, Mike, and we were watching the Patriots play. “WHAT?!” my mom shrieked. I could tell by the look on her face that she couldn’t quite process what my sister was saying. “Wait, talk to Mike.”

The next five minutes felt like days as I learned in bits and pieces from Mike’s half of the conversation that a back window at their house had been pried out. Winter air was pouring in. Passports and financial documents that had been locked up now shivered with the breeze where they lay on floor. A safe had been dragged from the office to the kitchen and the door so thoroughly abused that it had finally given up my mom’s jewelry and a significant amount of cash.

My parents scrambled to pack to their stuff so they could drive back to New Hampshire immediately. I felt something in me descending. But simultaneously an uncontrollable ferocity that I had never felt before arose. This is how I remember Christmas Eve of 2016.

My dad, who was once a Marine, has, as far as I know, always slept with a gun beside the bed. He seems somewhat unfazed.

But my mom will never feel safe in that house again. They will soon be putting it on the market. Although they did find their cat, it’s been over a year, and the thieves that robbed them have yet to be caught—so far as we know. It’s true that should these sorry excuses for human beings return, they will trip a dozen alarms. And they will do so in front of many cameras: cameras with feeds backing up to two synced servers in other states. Yet my parents’ experience of driving nineteen hours to return to a ravaged shell of a home on Christmas day changed something in them.

Before they had set out to visit me in Knoxville, they stopped at the police station in our sleepy town and requested that the sheriff send out regular patrols, and the sheriff readily agreed to do so—not much happens there. In addition to my sister, they had two other people coming to the house in shifts to turn lights on and off, take in the mail, and generally give the impression that the house was occupied.

In the world in which my parents grew up, these techniques likely would have deterred any would-be robber. But security has changed faster than many people’s conceptions of it. My parents paid a steep price learning that security in today’s world is multifaceted. I hope you’ll never experience this and that you’ll prepare on all fronts.

Yet, many won’t. Even some I’ve told this story to, who nod along and show genuine empathy, also go on to tell me that their neighborhoods are safe. They don’t even have to lock their front doors when they go to bed at night. In their minds, any unexpected visitor likely needs to borrow a cup of sugar to make some sweet tea. In the land of southern hospitality, it’s easy to chalk up my parents’ experience as indicative of the cultural differences between the northern and southern United States. Not so.

According to statistics from NeighborhoodScout.com, Knoxville residents are three times more likely to fall victim of a property-related crime than those in the city center closest to my parents’ home (Concord, NH). Granted, Knoxville has come a long way since the early 2000s, statistics from U.S. News from 2014 (the last year for which their statistics are available) still show Knoxville’s crime rate to be higher than the national average. And on a scale where 100 indicates the most dangerous places to live, BestPlaces.net gives Knoxville a 79. The site also reports that 31 is the national average, painting Knoxville as quite dangerous. Thankfully, these numbers fall off outside of the city of Knoxville and become much closer to the national averages. Property-related crimes in the suburbs earn Knoxville a rating of 47.9, the national average being 38.1. And violent crimes in the suburbs get a rating of 40.1, while the national average is 31.1. NeighborhoodScout.com also puts Knoxville’s averages in a more concrete, graspable form. “My chances of becoming a victim of a violent crime,” the site reports are, “1 in 107.” But the odds shoot up to 1 in 16 when considering your chances of being a victim of property-related crime.

One of the things that these numbers can’t tell us is who is a likely target for any given type of crime. When it comes to being targeted, we’re not all equal. It’s a good idea to assess your risk levels, which are sure to be different for different types of crime. For instance, a young female living on the University of Tennessee campus is likely to have a much higher level of risk for violent crime than for burglary. And this may be even higher than for others in her demographic if she works the night shift at a bar and regularly walks home alone. On the other hand, a stout, middle-aged male may be an unlikely target for a violent crime. Yet if he regularly leaves a MacBook Pro in his car’s back seat, his risk level for burglary is quite high. So the first thing to consider is your risk level for various crimes.

Most people underestimate risk, which is what my parents did. While you may think your route is well-lit and that plenty of people are typically out while you walk home, you’re merely gambling. And while you may think your income, your house, your car, or your computer are only of modest value, those who are willing to steal likely have a different opinion. This is the perspective you should attempt to adopt when considering how criminals might size you up.

Something you might not consider but that criminals will is your profession, and this is typically easy enough for them to discover. Even if you’re not wealthy, a job that connects you with a lot of important or wealthy people could heighten your risk. How valuable might your digital rolodex be to someone? And if you’re a lawyer, a banker or investor, or something of a public figure, your risk level goes up.

Moreover, while your house, your car, and your job present fairly static indicators to potential criminals, your digital life may give them a fluid picture that allows them to precisely plan an attack. We rarely consider how interconnected our digital and physical lives are. But today’s criminals can and will make use of any information you make public. For instance, thinking it was reasonably safe, my mom had posted pictures of all of us in a cabin in Gatlinburg a few days before Christmas. These pictures clearly told someone that whatever the normal level of risk was, it was now dramatically lower.

Pause a moment and consider all the times you might have sent a similar message to the world. Scary, right?

On the flip side, however, this also means that you have a substantial ability to shape the way criminals see you. For instance, you can wait until you get back from that vacation to share where you went and how great it was. And in the meantime, you can still utilize a more private channel such as text messaging to share life events with those you want to keep in the loop. Consider whether you want everyone or just a few select people to know where you are, or that you just got a gorgeous vintage guitar or a priceless work of art.

While sharing less can reduce your perceived value as a potential target, a complementary strategy is to increase the perceived risk of targeting you. If you’re into jiujitsu or kickboxing, it doesn’t hurt to let the world know it. On the same premise, if you go through the trouble and expense of installing a security system, make sure to put up the appropriate signage. Letting the world know you’re willing and able to defend yourself can eliminate the need to ever have to.

This is a principle that young women in particular should keep in mind—especially those living on or near a college campus. The Jeanne Clery Act of 1990 requires universities to disclose crime statistics, and the picture these numbers paint at the University of Tennessee is telling. The number of reported rapes has risen over the last three years. If you’re a young woman, think about how you would respond to an unwanted sexual advance. Have firm and unambiguous words at the ready, as well as a physical deterrent to back those words up, such as pepper spray—and know how to use it. Simply having it on a keychain or buried in a purse does no good. And take a course in self-defense if you can.

If you’re a homeowner, consider a security system, but definitely do your research. A computer scientist who formerly worked at Oak Ridge National Lab has demonstrated that the alarms of many residential security systems can be suppressed with very cheap, very basic equipment.

While maintaining your security is multifaceted, it is also manageable. And you can start by considering your level of risk, managing how attackers perceive you, and preparing yourself and your property for potential threats. I’ll delve into greater detail about the specific applications of each of these ideas in forthcoming issues. In the meantime, don’t be a victim.

This is the first in a series of six articles over the coming year that will deal with matters of property, personal, and digital security.

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