The Rapid Expansion of The Private Security Industry

While studying for my degree in Security & Risk Management I was assigned a task to discuss the possible reasons for the rapid expansion of the Private Security Industry in recent decades discussing the various developments that have evolved in theory, policy and practice. It was an interesting assignment and the essay I wrote has gained interest from some of my colleagues.

With that in mind I have decided to share the essay for those that may be interested in reading it, although I have edited it and removed some parts. So why has the Security industry expanded so rapidly in recent decades?

Origins of Private Security

The origins of private security can be traced in the UK back to the 17th Century where a growing concern for the increasing levels of crime in London caused officials to offer rewards for the capture of thieves. The men that stepped forward were known as “Thief-takers” and would receive a reward for capturing suspected thieves.  Corruption soon set in within this group of men when they started to also encouraged thieving to increase their profits. By doing so they were able to claim a reward for capturing the thief as well as claiming a reward from the victims for returning their stolen property (Department of Criminology 2013). These men are one of, if not the, earliest from of private security contractor that can be found and are quite a contrast from the modern day security officer, especially when considering the massive growth that the security industry has experienced.

A study carried out in 1995 by Jap De Waard estimated that nearly 600,000 security operators were operating across the 15 member states of the European Union (EU), while the Security Industry Authority’s (SIA) current statistics on licensing show that as of 01 August 2013, over 378 thousand security licenses were currently issued. Although these statistics are not concrete evidence due to security officers in the UK, in some cases having multiple sector licenses, and De Waard advising that the results from his 1995 study should be seen as ‘approximations rather than exact measures’, these statistics still show that over an 18 year period the size of the security industry in the UK alone is now over half the size of the estimated industry across the entire EU some 18 years ago. An even greater comparison can be made between the London 1948 and 2012 Olympics.

A BBC news article published on-line in June 2011 interviewed one Mr Edgar Candlish about his experience at the 1948 London Olympics. Mr Candlish revealed that the lack of any security enabled him to approach the top athletes competing at the time, even getting close enough to talk with them while they warmed up for their event (BBC News Lincolnshire, 2011: n.p.). Moving forward to the 2012 Olympics and a House of Commons authorised review of Olympic security by the Home Affairs Committee for the HM Government (2012) states that 23,700 private security personnel were needed to keep the games safe. This is as well as 15,000 police officers deployed daily, (on peak days) and a peak of 18,200 soldiers, all maintaining security across the London 2012 Olympic venues.  While it fair to assume that there would have been some form of security presence at the 1948 Olympics, it is obvious, by the mere fact that Mr Candlish observed no security at all, that the numbers of security at the 2012 London Olympics have far, far outweighed what would have been employed during the former Olympic event. Put in simple terms, on the face of it the two games separated by 54 years, appear to have a difference of over 50,000 security personnel!


It is clear to see from the contrast of the two Olympic Games that the security industry’s growth has been rapid, especially within the last few decades where modern conflicts and new forms of terrorism have caused greater concern for safety. But risk theory and its development has also played a major part in the growth of the security industry. As risk theories have been developed, so too has the understanding of how to combat risk to reduce it. Cultural theorists argue that a person’s perception of risk is defined by the ‘strength and context of the individual’s relationship to social groups’ (Bernstein, 1996: 6, as cited in Borodzicz, 2005: 14). This is an interesting point and one that reveals a lot about how people behave in terms of risk. What one person may think is a risk, another will not and in turn creates problems when defining risk. This thought process has a direct impact on how incidents and events are planned for within the security industry. As security managers and planners try and ensure the safety of the public whilst carrying out their specific role, they have to take into account a far greater spectrum of potential risks. This can also cause problems and an extra workload on a public interaction level. Take a shopping centre for example. Security officers there will have to deal with a wide range of concerns from the public using their facilities. Things such as a wet floor is often considered a slip hazard, and many people will not think it much of a risk and just go about their daily business, while some will consider it a higher cause for concern or risk and approach security officers to get the problem solved.

Another aspect of security which has caused dramatic growth is the ability to plan contingencies to deal with an emergency, disaster or crisis. According to Edward Borodzicz, a professor in Risk, Crisis and Security Management ‘what may often begin as an apparently small or routine emergency may quite dramatically turn into a major disaster, because it was impossible to envisage how the event would (or could) manifest.’ (Borodzicz, 2005:76). This suggests that although security and risk managers may plan for small emergencies, they must also plan for the possibility of emergencies to develop into much more serious incidents such as disasters or crisis, but that it is difficult to do so due to how unpredictable certain scenarios are. They must have a sufficient level of contingency planning to cope with this potential development. Within this development of theories, best practice has evolved too. Surveillance now plays an important role in how a security officer performs his task. No longer is a security officer expected to just sit at a desk and carry out a few patrols through his or her shift. Security officers of the modern world must be very proactive in the way in which they operate. They are expected to spot things out of place that others would miss. They are generally expected to be actively looking for a potential incident rather than waiting to respond to one. ‘Prevention, where possible, is always better than response after things have gone wrong’ (Borodzicz, 2005: 73).

Clifford Shearing and Philip Stenning, who are both experts in criminology and security suggest that surveillance is one of the central characteristics of security work. This is an important point as it shows how the development of best practice and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) has evolved greatly from the Thief-takers of years ago. Thief-takers were a reactive organisation reacting to theft. Security officers today are proactive, ideally preventing incidents such as theft from taking place all together.


Terrorism, which is another contributing factor to the growth of the security industry, could be argued to be one of the greatest contributors to its rapid growth, particularly since the events of September 11, 2001 (commonly referred to as the 9/11 attacks), where the world witnessed the largest terrorist attack in history. Since that moment, people all around the world have had a heightened awareness of security, especially in the United States. An opinion poll conducted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs show’s that 36% of respondents in 2002 thought that terrorism was now one of two or three of their countries biggest problems, compared to 0% in 1995 (World Views 2002, 2002:10). Furthermore, 6 years later in 2008 an opinion poll showed that 67% of Americans polled still thought that combating terrorism was “very important” (Global Views 2008, 2008:1). These figures show that opinions in America against combating terrorism are strong. This is important, especially when considering the global growth of the security industry. The concerns of the general public in America afford the U.S. Government more power to increase security operations. Their increased security operations at airports and the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are evidence of this. The TSA website notes:

Following September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems and ensure the freedom of movement for people and commerce. Today, TSA secures the nation’s airports and screens all commercial airline passengers and baggage. TSA uses a risk-based strategy and works closely with transportation, law enforcement and intelligence communities to set the standard for excellence in transportation security (Transportation Security Administration, 2013: n.p.).

The TSA is a very large organisation, controlling security at all of America’s airports and has played a large part in increasing the security industry, particularly in the United States. It is a good example of where the government has reacted to an incident and tried to increase safety. In the UK there has been an ongoing threat of terrorism since the 1970’s. This constant threat has thrown security into the public eye. People expect security to be present at shopping centres and places where there are large crowds such as large scale events and festivals. The general public are also critical in spotting suspicious devices that may be planted by terrorist organisations. This expectation has created a greater demand for the private security industry in terms of front-line manpower. The figures used previously to highlight the development of the security package delivered for the London 2012 Olympic Games are a prime example. Those figures show that during the 1948 London Olympics, even though World War 2 had only recently ended, at a time where world peace was at a critical stage, security was not a major concern. Fast forward 54 years to the 2012 games and it is quite clear that security was a major concern for the organisers of the event and that a major part of that concern was terrorism, so much so, that the government utilised anti aircraft missile systems to stop a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the July 7 2005 bombings of London may have further fuelled this concern given the fact that the attacks happened just one day after London was awarded the Olympic Games commonly known as the 7/7 terror attacks. This terror attack in particular also illustrates how even terrorism has evolved.

The 7/7 terror attack was not the usual Irish Republican Army (IRA) terror attack that the UK was used to. It was committed by supporters of the Islamic terror organisation Al Qaeda. This terror group has been responsible for some of the most horrific acts of terrorism around the world in recent years, including that of the 9/11 attack in America, and when we compare the IRA to Al Qaeda it is quite clear that they have adopted very different strategies. The IRA for example often gave a warning that a bomb had been planted to allow civilians to escape the danger. There terror campaign was aimed more at the UK government than the people of it. Comparing that to AL Qaeda’s method’s shows a distinct difference. During an interview with ABC News reporter John Miller, Osama Bin Laden (the former leader and mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks) stated that “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets in this fatwa.”. This coupled with the results of their 9/11 and 7/7 attacks (over 3,000 civilian deaths in the two attacks) show that the form of terrorism the world faces today, is very different to what the UK faced from the IRA.

The National Security Strategy published by the HM Government (2010: 28) notes that ‘we assess that the principal threat from international terrorism will continue to come from Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and terrorists inspired by its ideology’. Although this was published prior to Osama Bin Laden’s death, the threat from this organisation and its followers or those that wish to mimic them is still very relevant. In May 2013 Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered by two Muslim converts in what appears to be a sympathetic attack in favour of Al Qaeda or other such terrorist organisations.  The two men were videoed explaining how their attack was in retaliation to British soldiers killing Muslims and they went on to say to a female bystander that ‘you and your children will be next’ (Martin, M., Greenhill, S., Greenwood, C., and Cooper, R. 2013: n.p.). Although their motives are yet to be established it is clear that their pattern follows that of the sort of attack that Al Qaeda would carry out or sanction. As the threat from international terrorism grows so too does the requirement for security. Governments have to be seen to be protecting their nation and this also applies to Western citizens working overseas in hostile areas such as the African continent, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Hostile Environment

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw unprecedented levels of private security companies operating in the Middle East. The earlier military operation to remove Al Qaeda from Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, although still requiring Private Military Contractors (PMC’s), had nowhere near the requirement for PMC’s as Iraq did. While it is hard to get exact figures on just how many companies have operated in Iraq and Afghanistan since the conflicts have started, a Reuters article in 2012 gives an idea on just how large an impact these two conflicts have had on the security industry on a global scale. The article states that ‘At its peak, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated there might have been as many as 260,000 contractors in the two countries’ (Apps, P., 2012: n.p.). 260,000 security operators spread across the two countries at its peak is nearly the entire security industry of the UK (a point to consider with this figure is that these security contractors are not residents of those two countries; they are in effect, in a large majority of cases, Western civilians operating in a foreign country for Western governments and are in addition to local security forces). This figure alone shows the sheer scale of security operations undertaken by private contractors in hostile environments and the growth that the security industry has taken.

These contractors in hostile environments, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, take up roles that would have previously been carried out by the military. They provide security and protection to contract workers responsible for rebuilding and restoring these nations. By allowing security contractors to provide this sort of protection, it frees up military resources to combat the threat of terrorism or insurgency. It is important to note at this point those security contractors, or PMC’s, are not soldiers. They do not carry out direct action military operations. They are there for the protection of workers and as such operate in a reactive manner which may seem contradictory to a point made earlier about security officers being proactive. Security contractors in Iraq for example will not pro-actively seek out terrorist or insurgent groups as this will greatly increase their risk of attack. They move from point A to point B, for example, with their client and will react to a threat to their safety. They will however be proactive in their approach to identifying potential risks or threats and then react accordingly. If we compare that to the way in which a security guard at a supermarket may actively seek out thieves you can see that there is a contrast. This contrast is caused by the increase in risk to the security officers operating in an environment which is classed as hostile. It would simply be too dangerous for them to seek out criminals or terrorists and as such they will endeavour to stay as far away from danger or risk as possible.

It could also be argued that the success of the security industry in hostile environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan is what has caused the security industry within the maritime environment to grow so rapidly in response to the threat of pirate attack in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Security contractors working in the Maritime sector operate very similarly to PSC’s in Iraq with one major difference. On the ocean they can’t just take a different turning if they suspect trouble. These PSC’s have to stay on board large sea going vessels and defend it should pirates attempt to take control of the ship for ransom.

Security Training

Another sub-sector that has grown rapidly within the security industry is the training sector. The number of training companies around the world has grown exponentially within the last decade to a point where training companies are offering otherwise expensive courses at an ultra low price to the student. Within the Close Protection sector for example there are numerous training companies that now offer Close Protection (CP) training for under £900. Often these companies offer a sub standard level of training, in some cases barely meeting the SIA requirements (which are unfit for purpose anyway, but that’s a whole other article!). Some have even, presumably by accident, advertised their cheap courses while clearly stating that they are not meeting the SIA required standards. This, no doubt, in turn causes more unscrupulous businessmen to open up their own sub standard training facility having seen what money can be earned, and thus increasing the security industry even further. A final indicator of how large the security industry has become is the sheer scale of qualifications and training that can now be undertaken within it.


To conclude, it is quite clear to see why the security industry has grown so rapidly in recent years. Developments in risk theory have given security managers and government officials a better understanding of the term and how it affects people. This has allowed them to increase security operations where the public feel the need, as well as being able to counter specific threats to a countries infrastructure. This greater understanding allows organisers of security to predict where and when security is needed and to what degree. Arguably the largest contributing factor to the growth of the security industry though, is terrorism. Since the events of the 9/11 attacks in America and then the July 7 bombings in London, there have been two major conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. These conflicts have created hundreds of thousands of jobs for security contractors operating overseas and have increased the global security industry on a formidable scale. With the rapid growth of the security industry in these hostile environments it could be argued that this idea is what has cause the Maritime Security Industry to grow in terms of armed contractors on-board ships. The security industry’s growth has been dramatic in recent years, and with the threat of terrorism not likely to disappear any time soon, it is fair to say that it is likely to continue to grow steadily in the near future.

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