We Never Sleep

The forerunner to the U.S. Secret Service, the Pinkerton agency in Ann Arbor remains a viable, international leader in traditional and cyber security and services.
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 Ann Arbor offers an urban oasis that technology firms and their mostly younger workers gravitate to. But how to explain a technology powerhouse that relocated to Ann Arbor from New Jersey, by way of Chicago, and was founded before the Civil War?

It starts in the days of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy — at the dawn of Millard Fillmore’s presidency in 1850 — when Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was the inspiration of a Scottish immigrant named Allan Pinkerton. A police detective in Chicago at the time, Pinkerton got the bright idea that the work he was doing on the police force could be offered successfully in the private sector.

He was correct. Adopting a code of conduct and the slogan, “We Never Sleep,” Pinkerton agents were hired by the railroads to guard the rails on horseback. Industrialists hired Pinkerton to maintain security in the midst of labor disturbances. Murder investigations were solved by Pinkerton detectives acting in concert with local police. Not only did the founder succeed; he actually blazed trails that the federal government ultimately followed in the creation of the Secret Service, the FBI, and the CIA.

In short order, Pinkerton assembled experts in security, law enforcement, and investigative services, and the agency ultimately became the head of intelligence for the Union Army during the Civil War. Among other things, that put Pinkerton in a position to provide protection for President Abraham Lincoln, and their service included the uncovering of an assassination plot against him in 1861. Of course, they did not prevent Lincoln’s actual assassination by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865 (Pinkerton’s agents were not on assignment that night). 

Fast-forward to modern times. When Pinkerton announced last year that it was relocating its world headquarters from New Jersey to downtown Ann Arbor, it was a far more advanced version of Allan Pinkerton’s creation. 

“Before, it was more a matter of having vetted our agents, and providing the right training to be ready for game day, so to speak,” says Jack Zahran, Pinkerton’s president. “Now, with the use of technology, we look at something like social media, where we use that information and those techniques to possibly find some hostile rhetoric — this is a flag, this is a warning sign — and from there, that may change the deployment.”

As Sony discovered late last year, when hackers caught the company unprepared and broke into the company’s internal files, including private emails, the digital world has lots of back doors. “The top threat today is cyber, and it runs the gamut,” Zahran says. “It’s protecting your information. It’s the inside job. I know cyber is very broad, but that’s where clients are really focusing. Everything is about (protecting) information.”

Much of Pinkerton’s ability to respond comes from the use of geospatial technology, which is a platform of online tools that tap into
geographic information. It helps investigators identify the real meaning of the noise and chatter they’re hearing, and often gives them information they can act on.

 

“Your ability to synthesize information, and get the information up and out, is the key,” Zahran says. “In Egypt, when things were getting really unstable (during the Arab Spring), companies were looking for a partner. What is noise? What is real? What is happening? Do we pull our people now? Do we not? You need the right information to drive that.”

So why, after 165 years of operating successfully around the world, did Pinkerton choose to relocate to Michigan? According to Zahran, the venerable company’s 39-year-old president, it involved access to talent, resources, and clients.

“Like most other college towns, (Ann Arbor) is a research town, so you have access to good information that’s there,” he says. “There’s a lot of good technology development in the region, and it’s really the Detroit metro area. Ann Arbor made sense as far as the standard of living and from a recruiting standpoint, but it’s the Michigan region we really like. The closer you are to a major market, you’re going to get development attraction, so we’ve always had an office and a presence in Michigan. Being close (now), we’ve seen a lot of interest and reinvigoration in existing relationships.”

The move wasn’t made as a result of governmental incentives. Zahran, who graduated from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, says Pinkerton saw it more as a reflection of where the company is today, and where it’s going in terms of its client relationships and the evolution of its service offerings. Pinkerton already does extensive work with the auto industry and regional R&D firms.

Paul Krutko, president and CEO of SPARK, an economic development agency in Ann Arbor, says the city and state are fortunate to have landed the company. “Ann Arbor competed against New York and Chicago for Pinkerton, and the company was confident in its ability to grow here. When a global company chooses Ann Arbor, it’s important to recognize the impact it has on our ability to attract other businesses — and, more importantly, talent — to the Ann Arbor region.”

As the company mines the region’s tech base, it has shaken the mantle of a long-simmering relationship with organized labor. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, corporations routinely hired Pinkerton as a private security force during labor disputes that had the potential to turn violent, and often did. One particular confrontation occurred in 1892, when Pinkerton agents representing industrialist Andrew Carnegie came up against striking workers. The skirmish left seven dead. Such incidents led to labor unions holding a dim view of Pinkerton, whose agents they came to refer to as “pinks.”

Today, Pinkerton is a global enterprise, with offices throughout the U.S. as well as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, India, Beijing, and Guangzhou (China). The firm has 1,500 employees and more than 10,000 agents who can be deployed as necessary. When a massive emergency situation develops, Pinkerton has been known to deploy thousands of agents to help deal with the situation — as they did during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy in New York.

“If Pinkerton were to model themselves after a federal agency, it would be the FBI,” says Brian Tuskan, senior director of technology and investigations at Microsoft Corp. “They’re professional, they’re competent — it’s kind of like a privatized FBI. When you look at the private sector, it’s a huge market. There’s a huge demand for that line of business.”

That demand, according to Tuskan, comes from the growing number and expanded nature of threats private organizations face. 

 

“You have increased workplace security issues, so a security director might say, ‘I think we need 50 more guards to stand post at the door, and it’s going to cost X million of dollars in labor,’” Tuskan says. “Well, Pinkerton will assess the problem and come up with a strategy and a plan that will make the most sense, and not just immediately throw money at the problem. The (recent) increase in terrorism and the uptick in threats and workplace violence have led to a 300-percent increase in manned guarding. Pinkerton gets this, too. It’s not how many resources or physical guards or bodies you throw at a problem. It’s based on a strategy of how you deploy, and how you use technology to mitigate or minimize risks.”

Microsoft has contracts with Pinkerton in a variety of markets globally, including China, eastern and central Europe, and India, as well as the United States.

As extensively as Pinkerton uses technology, no one should think it’s a replacement for skill, knowledge, or experience. Detectives have always used tools to help them do their jobs, but in order to be successful, they had to have good investigative instincts as well as the best tools to get the desired result.

“Your tactical base is still very important,” Zahran says. “What we used to call protective services, we now call protective intelligence, because we have to take the technology and turn it into a next generation of best practices. A lot of things are being algorithm-driven, and how you feed an algorithm makes the difference. The lessons we’ve learned over the past 165 years can really make a difference in how you shape a technology like that. Garbage in, garbage out.”

If Pinkerton assigns a detail to protect an executive or a government leader, for example, the team will be armed with physical and cyber weapons. “Now, when it’s game day, so to speak, and we’re protecting a
diplomat or something like that, we’ll incorporate GPS tracking,” Zahran says. “It makes a huge difference in terms of using these
technologies.”

A former detective, Tuskan, of Microsoft, says he looks for investigative instincts first, and then views the smart use of technology as a plus. “Pinkerton also does security consulting and risk assessments, and a lot of this is just back to institutional knowledge and old-school hitting the ground and knowing what you’re doing,” he says. “You can’t replace experience with technology. Technology is a tool.”

But part of using technology well is understanding how to organize information. To that end, Pinkerton has aggregated massive volumes of data — compiled by its own people, other intelligence analysts, and governments around the world — into a massive database it calls the Pinkerton Vigilance Network.

Tuskan, who has had access to the data contained in the Vigilance Network, describes it as a type of geospatial mapping apparatus that has become a go-to resource in mitigating risks and threats to Pinkerton clients. “In the services they provide, they have an edge because of the technology they use for analytics, security, and intelligence,” he says.

All the emphasis on geospatial mapping and other technology is clearly a far cry from Pinkerton’s roots, but in many ways the agency’s history remains the thing the public most easily recognizes. Movie fans may recall Will Smith portrayed a Pinkerton agent in The Wild Wild West, helping to foil an assassination attempt against President Ulysses S. Grant. Pinkerton detectives also played a role in several James Bond novels, and at least one Sherlock Holmes novel, as well as the film, The Legend of Zorro.

A new generation of pop culture mavens might get to know Pinkerton for its work in electronic surveillance, risk management consulting, and threat assessment, as well as security details and more traditional investigative work. Those appear to be market needs Zahran and his associates see as they settle into their new location and set about the agency’s latest evolution. They will also focus on services like crisis management, executive protection, residential protection, employment screening, and intellectual property.

 

It’s not always obvious when a Pinkerton agent is on the scene. Sometimes the driver for a particular executive isn’t just a chauffeur. When the CEO always parks in the same place and follows other predictable patterns — as many do — that disgruntled employee who was recently let go might know exactly where to look for a CEO if he or she is angling for a confrontation, and having a Pinkerton agent nearby might be a good idea.

“You think of Pinkerton, the history is just amazing,” Tuskan says. “We’re talking way back to the foundation of the United States. They have a rich history and, for me, it’s just fascinating because I’m kind of a history buff — but also to know that Pinkerton as an investigative entity has been around for such a long time, and that they hire highly qualified security professionals, most of whom are former law enforcement (personnel).”

A job with Pinkerton might make for an interesting career opportunity for detectives, police officers, and federal agents in Michigan who see their departments caught in budget crunches, who are eligible for retirement but still want to work, or who are looking for a career change. It might also provide food for thought for long-established Michigan companies that need to reassess what they previously believed about their security needs. 

One thing you can say for sure, though, is that Michigan apparently can build its new economy on new technologies and new ideas, and then see it all brought here in the form of one of the oldest companies in the world. Of course, you don’t stick around that long without adapting to change — or, better yet, getting ahead of it. db

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