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Monday, 09 May 2011
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Putting Amateurs In Charge of Security

Last week, partially in response to the death of Osama Bin Laden, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn asked that everyone become hyper vigilant, and if you "See Something, Say Something". While on the surface, the Chief's advice makes sense, it is actually the wrong approach, and will make us worse off in the long run. Security expert Bruce Schneier has written extensively on this type of thinking, and this entire article is well worth a read, but I'll clip out some of the better parts as they pertain to what the Milwaukee Police Chief is asking of us:

The problem is that ordinary citizens don't know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can't tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector or trash sculpture. Nor can they tell the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy -- usually based on fear, media hype or just something being different.

Even worse: After someone reports a "terrorist threat," the whole system is biased towards escalation and CYA instead of a more-realistic threat assessment.

Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to -- a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant -- now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it's a false alarm, it's not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he's wrong, it'll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he'll be praised for "doing his job" and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we're done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted.

We're already seeing this in statistics from New York, where after Bin Laden was killed, there was a spike in reporting of "suspicious" packages:

There were 10,566 reports of suspicious objects across the five boroughs in 2010. So far this year, the total was 2,775 as of Tuesday compared with 2,477 through the same period last year.
The daily totals typically spike when terrorist plot makes headlines here or overseas, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Tuesday. The false alarms themselves sometimes get break-in cable news coverage or feed chatter online, fueling further fright.

On Monday, with news of the dramatic military raid of bin Laden's Pakistani lair at full throttle, there were 62 reports of suspicious packages. The previous Monday, the 24-hour total was 18. All were deemed non-threats.

Why the spike? There was no increased terrorist activity in New York. What increased was people's fear. And so things that they normally would not have thought twice about (and rightfully so) became suspicious in their minds. And because most citizens aren't security experts, they had no way of truly telling the difference.

This does not help the police, as Ed Flynn suggests. Instead, it floods the police with more bad information they have to sift through. It increased the amount of chaff that has to be cleared before the wheat is found. Moreover, when you have that much extra noise, it makes it more likely that valid information will be missed. As Schneir concludes:

If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn't be surprised when you get amateur security.
People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they're spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.

Bin Laden was found through good data analysis over a long period of time. But that data did not come through the average man on the street in Milwaukee saying something. Asking amateurs to flood data centers with bad information will not help us.

# Posted at 09:39 by Nick  |  Comment Feed Link No Comments  |  No Trackbacks

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