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  • Bobby Brunk

Unified communications take on a new meaning during pandemic

The security industry has a fondness for buzzwords. Whether they relate to physical or cyber, security buzzwords serve as catchphrases to help practitioners ride the tide of new and emerging technologies. The industry has moved on from the basics like plug-n-play and convergence to an array of more descriptive buzzwords that capture the rapid rise of network-centric solutions. The Internet of Things (IoT), the Cloud, business intelligence and Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Security as a Service (SaaS) and Unified Communication are all descriptors that are destinations on today’s security roadmaps.

Several buzzwords, however, have morphed into critical elements of accelerated business operation strategies as the coronavirus crisis forces organizations to rethink the way they integrate security technology into their risk mitigation plans. Even though mass notification and emergency communications policy and procedures have changed drastically over the last decade, the urgency to now be able to locate people and geo-fence fence areas that allow for targeted notification and response is essential for a unified communications plan. When public safety agencies and the private sector assess their risk threats, it is not enough to just mass notify in the event of an incident. Suddenly, unified communication has taken on a whole new meaning and importance.

Unified Communications Is Front and Center

Since March of this year and the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, communications solutions providers have scrambled to tailor emergency and business continuity plans to their existing customers that allowed them to regroup and contemplate reopening. They have encountered organizations that were in dire need of a plan, not just technology. For secure communications experts like David Wiseman, who is currently the Vice President of Marketing for Secure Communications at BlackBerry AtHoc, it really is the “message, not the medium” now, with deference and a twist to 1960’s Canadian communications thinker Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote, when considering today’s risk landscape.

“We've run into a lot more organizations that recognize the need for having an ongoing critical communication platform, both for reaching out to their employees and to help with business continuity. It’s not just technology but knowing they can trust domain expertise in their current planning. We've helped a number of large organizations to run drills that have the business continuity and the communication templates in place. We’ve got that experience and we've got the platform that can implement a complete managed service for an organization,” Wiseman says. “Particularly new organizations that didn't have a lot of internal expertise in this area and recognized the need.”

Wiseman, who has been with Blackberry in various technology marketing positions for the last six years, has been focused on the AtHoc solution since its acquisition in 2015. A software industry veteran having worked for the U.S. Navy, IBM and SAP, Wiseman understands information management and the criticality of essential event communications and crisis communications platforms.

“BlackBerry has always been very strong in the security space. And we've also, obviously, been strong in the communications space have done a lot of work with the government at all levels. As the company has started to evolve its overall communications platform, we saw the benefit of being able to take the system and the capabilities that AtHoc was providing and continue to build those out,” adds Wiseman. “We further heightened the security, further leveraged a lot of the infrastructure that BlackBerry has around the world in terms of our networking communication infrastructures. This approach has helped them build out the security posture of the system.”

A recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek says that 40% of computers in public safety agencies across America may be over seven years old and running decades-old software, which given the social and economic chaos being created by COVID-19, opens the public safety sector to unprecedented security breaches. In just the last two years, 180 public call centers have suffered network incursions, while more than 70% of reported ransomware attacks in the U.S. have targeted state and local governments.

Cybersecurity is a Priority

This clear and present danger to unified communications infrastructure security in both the public safety and private sectors have Wiseman prioritizing cybersecurity. He realizes that if the public can not trust the message, the medium is useless.

“First, how often do you trust that the information you're getting is accurate? The everyday consumer realizes just how many spoofing and spamming phone calls they get at their house or on their cell phone. So, before you build a unified communication platform, you’ve got to have a mechanism where people know that it's a channel they can trust. That concern has evolved a lot more since COVID,” he says. “Second, in terms of unified communication for this type of use case, it's more than, ‘Hey, I want to tie in mobile devices with email, with IP desk phones solution.’ We do all that, but it's a lot more. It's really about how am I going to be across all the channels that I need to be in order to reach everyone that I need to reach in a timely manner, and have a good chance of actually reaching them with this accurate information?"

As channels are added, understanding how to increase the reachability of the message is crucial. How are mediums such as SMS messages, secure emails, texts, even phone calls dispersed and secured across mobile apps, smartphones and social media?

“Those are all important channels. But then beyond that, particularly when you started talking about public safety and public outreach, issues such as digital signage on highways and public loudspeakers become important as well. Now we're also seeing this communication link expand more in terms of IoT-based speakers and cameras for data collection,” Wiseman points out. “We feel that the audience you need to reach and the message you need to disseminate need to be able to draw from all these different channels, and have a stable business process that's going to distribute it out and get any feedback that's needed as the process plays out. For us, that unification is a combination of several different transmission and collection channels, all unified into a single communications plan that I’ve already identified. You know who the audience is, and you've picked those channels to maximize the probability of reaching everyone in a timely manner since it is hopefully a channel that the end-user recognizes as one that they can trust.”

How to Establish Best Practices

When a solutions provider and end-user collaborate to solve a communications problem, there are no short cuts. Creating a project management team that can assess the threats and understand the levels of risk that are present can help an organization achieve a plan that works and policies that ensure all scenarios are covered.

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