06Psychologist Elsine van Os started her career at the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD), and then onto Shell International before starting her own company, Signpost Six. She helps businesses and government in online and offline profiling.
“Understanding the enigma of the human factor associated with online threats still remains underexplored.”
“The major focus of the interview should not dwell too much on being a woman in a male dominated business world”, Elsine van Os (37) communicates to me in advance of our meeting. She is more interested in discussing other aspects of her international career that have been far more challenging. That said there are many tantalising vignettes including; the shower in Uruzgan (in tightest green bags where only your head protrudes), men with knives between their teeth and advice from her boss at Shell to bring a rolled-up newspaper to Iraq. – “To beat the men away from me. Yes, that was necessary!” she says smiling.
As a rather feminine woman rubbing shoulders in an extremely macho world, traversing military compounds, supporting the security forces and the oil company Shell, Van Os’ career resume sounds more like an episode from the international hit spy series Homeland. She looks back on this period with pride. It required significant physical, intellectual and emotional resilience. “In 2008, just after the war, I set up a team for Shell in Iraq to continually monitor security threats, securing business leaders “safe passage” across the country.” During the Arab Spring, she supported crisis management from Dubai by gathering crucial intel about fourteen countries. “Which country is going to fall and how do we get our staff evacuated? It was about life and death, it was an extreme situation.”
At 30 when Van Os walked into the compound in Iraq (with her rolled-up newspaper) she was already familiar and experienced in dealing with risky situations. At 22 studying Psychology, she commenced her internship at a TBS (Forensic) clinic. “There were men who had committed serious crimes and tried to trick and manipulate me. Remaining focused, undeterred and staying the course was my first extreme character test.” After completing her Masters in Humanitarian Assistance and an intensive application period, she was appointed as a psychologist at the Army. Much to her surprise she received a request from the MIVD asking if she would consider working for the mission in Uruzgan. “This was a crossroads. My entire life I wanted to be a psychologist and having just realised my ambitions, did I really want to take a massive leap into the unknown?” However, the unique character of the intelligence service, the mission in Uruzgan, the resources it had at its disposal to analyse the security situation was an opportunity she could not easily shun. Twice she went to Afghanistan. How was it? “I often compare it with having a child. You can never completely prepare for it. Working in a conflict zone with the military….it became my second extreme character test.” She successfully completed her mission but one question kept repeating itself. What now? The next logical step in the intelligence service was unclear and Van Os felt she required more contact with the outside world after the restrictive and closed culture of the intelligence service. As a result of her strong analytical capabilities she was appointed as a security analyst at Shell. She established the global intelligence and analysis team and investigated the innumerable threats faced by the oil and gas producer.
When she started at Shell, the danger came mainly from criminals, activists and terrorists. “We were increasingly seeing hackers break into our systems. The corporate security division had limited technical knowledge and sought cooperation with the technical department. That’s how I learned the language of the cyber world. This was also a man’s world, but populated by a very different type of man, haha.”
“After MIVD, cybersecurity came. Also a man’s world, but populated by a very different type of man, haha”
After nine years at Shell Os decided to seek new challenges and pursued the dream of starting her own business. Signpost Six was born, helping diverse companies, intelligence and law enforcement services with threat assessments of criminals, terrorists and hackers, educating them in interpersonal intelligence. How can institutions influence cohesive sources? Or generate as much high-level information as possible about the other party? How can one not only get ahead in business negotiations by relying on “gut feel” but make informed decisions upon other available data? In this capacity, she worked as a profiler on the Hunted TV show. – A group of people get off the grid: they are untraceable and based on their psychological profile Van Os reveals their escape route. “It was a special, new experience that formed the basis for scientific research on volunteers, in collaboration with the University of Twente.”
Her core expertise has become increasingly online, where the enigmatic human factor is still strongly underexplored. “The world is digitizing, technology has become pivotal to our daily lives. Companies are significantly exposed in the technological space whilst criminals are resorting to even more sophisticated levels of cyberattacks. They use strong encryption and non-traceable IP addresses. What can be done to fight them? – The human factor.”
Van Os makes profile sketches of attackers based on their online behaviour: Does the person in question consume huge amounts of data? When is s/he online? Does s/he leave false traces? “Many intelligent systems are needed to handle cybercriminals” Van Os believes. “The developments are moving at lightning speed, it’s a big challenge just to keep up. The public are lobbying the Government for protecting the privacy rights of citizens, whereas criminals are equally violating it. It’s imperative the government acts with greater urgency because the privacy issue coupled with the resulting inhibition does not work.”
The need for privacy is something that Van Os understands. A consultation with the US government on the security situation in Iraq became “wiki-leaked” and an email exchange with a former Shell colleague who started a company in military drones came to Anonymous via “the streets”. “I’ve experienced how disturbing it is if your privacy is violated.”
“In addition to cyber threats, terrorism is another major area of work for Signpost Six” states Elsine van Os. “Psychology plays a pivotal role in understanding and combating these risks. In order to identify signals of radicalization and to analyse threats, looking at human behaviour is essential.”
Psychologist Elsine van Os focuses on the behaviour of people within risk environments. With her company Signpost Six, she helps business, organisations and government in online and offline profiling: tracking human behaviour. Previously, she worked for the Military Intelligence and Security Service and Shell. She is also known for her role as a profiler in the TV show “Hunted”.