Amateur Security

Over at Schneier on Security, Bruce Schneier has a thoughtful post about the ills of overreactions in the name of national security:

We’ve opened up a new front on the war on terror. It’s an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it’s a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested — even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

This isn’t the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it’s happening everywhere. It’s a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they’re the front line of terrorism defense. “If you see something, say something” is how the ads read in the New York City subways. “If you suspect something, report it” urges another ad campaign in Manchester, UK. The Michigan State Police have a seven-minute video. Administration officials from then-attorney general John Ashcroft to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to President Bush have asked us all to report any suspicious activity.

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 a trash sculpture; or 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. . . .

If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security. . . .

Causing a city-wide panic over blinking signs, a guy with a pellet gun, or stray backpacks, is not evidence of doing a good job: it’s evidence of squandering police resources. Even worse, it causes its own form of terror, and encourages people to be even more alarmist in the future. We need to spend our resources on things that actually make us safer, not on chasing down and trumpeting every paranoid threat anyone can come up with.

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2 Responses

  1. Adam says:

    It’s interesting, the extent to which the panicked public response to the risk of terrorism mirrors that of the risk of man-made global warming. (Cass Sunstein wrote an interesting paper on the subject back in 2005, I believe.)

    Given the excessive responses on subjects — the terrrorism scares noted above, or Harry Reid’s blaming the California fires on global warming, for example — perhaps the American public will ultimately become a bit more nuanced in its approach towards risk management.

  2. Tim Zick says:

    Keeping us at “Code Orange” indefinitely hasn’t helped. If we are always to be mindful and afraid, then everything will naturally look suspicious. That is, unless one lives in NYC. I find the “see something, say something” ads ridiculous. There isn’t a single day I don’t see something strange, or out of what many would consider “the ordinary.” Scaring the public works very well — for politicians. I have to agree it doesn’t do much for security.