"If You See Something, Say Something"

That slogan is owned by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (the MTA).

Since obtaining the trademark in 2007, the authority has granted permission to use the phrase in public awareness campaigns to 54 organizations in the United States and overseas, like Amtrak, the Chicago Transit Authority, the emergency management office at Stony Brook University and three states in Australia.

Of course, you’re only supposed to say something if you see something you think is terrorism:

Some requests have been rejected, including one from a university that wanted to use it to address a series of dormitory burglaries.

“The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime, and we felt that use in other spheres would water down its effectiveness,” said Christopher Boylan, an M.T.A. spokesman.

Not that it’s very effective.

The campaign urges people to call a counter-terrorism hot line, 1-888-NYC-SAFE. Police officials said 16,191 calls were received last year, down from 27,127 in 2008.

That’s a lot of wasted manpower, dealing with all those calls.

Of course, the vendors in Times Square who saw the smoking Nissan Pathfinder two weeks ago didn’t call that number.

And, as I’ve written previously, “if you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.” People don’t need to be reminded to call the police; the slogan is nothing more than an invitation to report people who are different.

EDITED TO ADD (5/14): Nice article illustrating how ineffective the campaign is.

Posted on May 12, 2010 at 7:08 AM64 Comments


Mike B May 12, 2010 7:34 AM

Yeah like Railfans. Way to go MTA making me feel like I am in East Germany as every time I want to take some interest in the Subway I have to watch out for informers.

I would like to state for the record that I am so turned off by this crap that I wouldn’t say a thing even if I saw something legitimately suspicious. If Big Brother is going to target me I don’t she why he needs my help.

BF Skinner May 12, 2010 7:50 AM

So the Times Sq street vendor is infringing? And all the news agencies that have spread his statement after spotting the dangerous car fire are also infringing?

Call the RIdoubleA!

Henning Makholm May 12, 2010 7:51 AM

Mike B: Ironically, in actual (former) East Germany railfans will not be harassed. I spent a week of last year’s vacation in Berlin, with forays into Brandenburg, acting extremely nosy and conspicuous and systematically photographing track layouts from platforms and street bridges. No reaction from authorities at all, even when I had to step around a group of on-duty police to align my shots.

It appears to be the same all over Germany (click on my name link for an earlier report).

Jamal Wallace May 12, 2010 8:09 AM

Have you considered that “security” may not be the real motive for programs like this?

chris May 12, 2010 8:13 AM

Ironically, in actual (former) East Germany railfans will not be harassed.

Not surprising. The current attitudes in the United States are something that could stem only out of an ignorance of the dangers of such a climate.

EdT. May 12, 2010 8:22 AM

“The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime…”

So, how are untrained folks supposed to be able to differentiate between the two? Is there any difference between the two?

Maybe the grant used to pay for the slogan’s development came from a special fund that required it be used only for terrorism-related activities. Or maybe the folks at MTA are brain-dead. One of the two, definitely.


Josh O. May 12, 2010 9:06 AM

I wonder if anyone thought to register as a trademark “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. Coulda made a fortune.

AB May 12, 2010 9:22 AM

You see similar signs in Israel a lot, with two (and a half) important differences: (1) they are much more specific about what to report (2) they always direct you to a nearby authority (e.g. the driver) or the police, and (2.5) Israeli public is generally well educated on these things anyway.

Clueless Noob May 12, 2010 9:26 AM

The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime

So terrorism isn’t a crime? We can shut down Gitmo now. Cool.

Debunker May 12, 2010 9:34 AM

“People don’t need to be reminded to call the police; the slogan is nothing more than an invitation to report people who are different.”

This is exactly what the Times Square street vendor, did. He reported someone for being different, right? No, he saw a suspicious, smoking car. That vendor? Aliou Niasse, a Senegalese Muslim.


Kristian May 12, 2010 9:56 AM

What do you suggest instead? As they say, “It’s easier to criticize than to create.” 🙂 Have a good one, sir.

alreadyonthelist May 12, 2010 10:12 AM

Bruce you are right. You don’t know how right you are.
Ignorance and fear. Recipe for a witch hunt. I was playing Irish language music, gaeilge, in my vehicle. An observer asked me if it was Arabic. No, its Irish. I am pointed at by observers and called an Arab terrorist. I’m not even an Arab and I don’t speak the lingo. I like sean nos music, Irish music in the old language. Ignorant observers see brown hair, hear a language with gutteral consonants and tell each other the government is watching me because I’m an Arab terrorist. They say it in front of me.
There is nobody watching the watchers. Nobody investigates Patriot Act Abuses. They can’t. Everything is bugged and tapped, the people with first crack at everything you report or try to do to catch them have a heads up. The DOJ can’t watch the watchers unless they deactivate the subjects or take over the taps themselves.

Robert May 12, 2010 10:12 AM

Shows how stupid I am, I always assumed the point of these special call numbers was to create an extra revenue source for AT&T, or whoever runs the answering “notification” center.

KH May 12, 2010 10:13 AM

Actually – you do need to remind people to call the police. But, I agree for terrorism this is sort of silly. If I see what? On the other hand, e-mail lists for neighborhood and one for the local police district will get messages like this on a regular basis: “I heard someone screaming near my house last night, does anyone know what happened?” or “I just heard gun shots and a car going fast near location X does anyone know what happened?” In the age of e-mail it would seem people are becoming phenomenally more inclined to e-mail their neighbors than to call the police.

Maybe we need 911@yourlocality..

So, I wouldn’t discount the need to remind people to call the police. Even if vague, unspecific calls to vague, unspecific action (say somehting to who??) are pretty pointless.

George May 12, 2010 10:18 AM

I assume it’s specifically intended to encourage the reporting of photographers who are taking pictures that don’t include their family members. Photography is a sure prelude to a terrorist plot, so it’s incumbent on all patriotic citizens to inform authorities about it. If the photographer can prove his innocence, he might get his camera back.

Ans as for “amateur security,” are you perhaps referring to the TSA?

peri May 12, 2010 11:07 AM

@Kristian: “It’s easier to criticize than to create.”

So you’re a lazy troll?

Andre LePlume May 12, 2010 11:12 AM

“If you hear something, fear something”

Permission to reuse the above to ridicule wasted security resources is hereby granted.

Harry May 12, 2010 11:14 AM

I noticed this weekend that the Washington, DC metro system has a “see it, say it” campaign.

BJC May 12, 2010 11:16 AM

I called 1-888-NYC-SAFE once when I found a messenger bag left in a free newspaper box. It was the most frustrating experience I’ve ever had. They needed a “street address,” as “next to the north side 82nd St. subway exit on Broadway” wasn’t good enough, and they wanted me to stick around, which I wasn’t going to do as it was the middle of the night on a relatively deserted street – oh, and the tiny chance that I could have been reporting an explosive device.

Don’t know if they ever looked into it.

BF Skinner May 12, 2010 11:47 AM

@peri “so you’re…”

Did we ever resolve the question of just how effective awareness programs are?

Not really anonymous May 12, 2010 12:06 PM

Why would people want to call police? You risk being arrested yourself or at least being treated as a suspect.

bob May 12, 2010 12:38 PM

@Kristian: “It’s easier to criticize than to create.”

Your comment implies that the creation of some new special-purpose program was necessary, or even productive.

DayOwl May 12, 2010 1:45 PM

  1. Get the unpaid public to do the work for you.

  2. Maybe if someone had said something, 9/11 could have been avoided. Oh, wait…never mind.

  3. Threats are limited only by our imagination…

  4. Spectacular take-downs of old backpacks could lead to more funding!

Steven Hoober May 12, 2010 1:58 PM

Concur with address problems. Probably should write up something long for RISKs on it, but this’ll do:
A rail crossing gate is malfunctioning and is always active. Call 911 to get directed (it’s a traffic issue, folks are going around it and it’s a bend, someone could be killed). They insist on an address. It’s a rail crossing, several hundred yards from anywhere. “What county” well, it’s near the county line. I don’t know, or care. After 20 minutes and three operators all claiming it wasn’t their jurisdiction (I had the time) gave up.
Not the first time I have had this issue one place or another. Why does internal process take precedence over safety. In the above, my directions were easy “send a cop to the bridge between House of Rocks on Merriam and Airgas on Foxridge and LOOK. If not his county, he’ll know, and send the right guy then.

To the NYC system, why a new number, etc? Even if you need the paranoia campaign, why not call 911?

And to conclude:
* “Be Safe: Be Suspicious”
* “Suspicion Breeds Confidence”
* “Trust in haste, Regret at leisure”
* “Don’t suspect a friend, report him”
* “Who can you trust?”
* “Help The Ministry Of Information Help You”
* “Loose Talk Is Noose Talk”
* “Top Security Holiday Camps. Luxury without fear. Fun without suspicion. Relax in a panic free atmosphere.”
* “Trust in haste, Regret at leisure”
* “Who can you trust?”
* “Mind that parcel. Eagle eyes can save a life.”
* “Power today. Pleasure tomorrow.”

FreeMind May 12, 2010 2:39 PM

In my country more than 30 years ago; there was a similar policy in effect around the whole country.

I say similar only because the choice of not saying something could lead the observer to jail too.

Basically everyone was seeing something and saying something even to a point that a lot of people were accusing family and neighbors who always ended in jail right away. Either for suspicious activities of whatever kind in their mind or for a perfect way to get back at someone for whatever reason which was done many times.

The political system of that time and for a few decades was FASCISM.

…not much different now

anon May 12, 2010 2:45 PM

Some feel like creating an Uncle Sam poster?

Kristian May 12, 2010 3:36 PM

@peri What you said illustrates my point. Thanks. Seriously, what useful to you have to add to this topic.

@bob I’m just saying that this blog topic isn’t helping anything. Cheers.

Roy May 12, 2010 3:52 PM

For years I’ve been making a point of not seeing anything.

I quit calling the police thirty years ago.

If law enforcement wants my help, they have to pay me, in advance. And, no, no credit.

Anton May 12, 2010 3:52 PM

Reminds me of the “three monkeys”

(Search on this phrase in google images to see what I mean)

Jim May 12, 2010 4:21 PM

@kristian I think Bruce’s original posting was of interest. It illustrates another example of how money is spent on a program that doesn’t add a lot of value, splits and confuses the attention of the public by separating “terrorism” from “crime” and could in an extreme case lead to the sort of facist state where people are reported to a variety of authorities maliciously or for trivial or irrelevant activities.

Bruce has written multiple times on how public money can be spent to get a better return than some current “initiatives” appear to so your comment “What do you suggest instead?” appears to show a lack of effort on your part. Your other comments add little to the discussion.

Andrew May 12, 2010 4:53 PM

I have done sit-alongs with emergency service dispatchers because all too often it’s my guys on the other side of the phone.

Amazingly enough, many do not even have basic Internet access. With Google Earth and/or Google Maps, they could do a much more effective job of helping to localize callers — but no, some hidebound middle manager or paranoid public official is terrified that someone MIGHT USE THE INTERNET OMG NO and therefore they are stuck typing addresses into a DOS box and looking for matches or using some proprietary piece of junk mapping software with datasets that haven’t been updated in X number of years. At one center I know of, the union bought a wireless router and 3G card to allow dispatchers to have Internet access on their personal laptops.

Few dispatchers get out into the field with officers. Often they have little or no knowledge of their service area because their lives consist of: get up, drive to work, sit at desk with computer(s) on it and a printed map book, work 12 or more hours overtime, drive home, collapse. Repeat. Some live in a different county so they literally don’t know the layout of the city or county they work for.

The dispatch job has a high burnout rate. Stress is one reason. Bureaucratic stupidity of this type is another.

Explain to me how a nationwide call center helps terrorism reporting over making a non-emergency call to local law enforcement. I can think of two special-purpose national call centers which do help their customers with special problems: Vonage and OnStar.



FYI, rail crossings in my neck of the woods are posted with a unique ID and a 1-800 number for railway dispatch.

Clive Robinson May 12, 2010 6:17 PM

@ BF Skinner,

with regards establishing the effectivness of such “spy on your neighbour” systems…

If I remember both my modern and ancient history they have normaly indicated what we would at the very least call a “police state”, that as far as I’m aware either was deystroyed by the “concerned citizens” of the state or by the barbarian’s who just “Walked through the gate” of the economically collapsing state…

I have to be carefull how I draw my conclusions, but history indicates that when a state spends so much “protecting” it’s citizens “from themselves” the economy of the state starts to collapse, and from a certain point the state is irrevocably doomed, and in general the only point of interest there after is the time element and what the “citizens” do if they have the chance. As for the barbarians well let’s just say empovership and slavery has generaly been the best the citizens can hope for at their hands…

Clive Robinson May 12, 2010 6:44 PM

If various enterties are going to copyright “catch phrases” such as these (which is at best legaly dubious) it begs the question of when are they going to copyright/patent the processess and procedures?

You can just see it,

“I’m sorry Mr President we cannot carry out that policy initiative”

To which the inevitable question,

“why on earth not?”

“well Mr President that policy has been patented by the Chinese and to be quite frank we cannot aford the royalties they demand”

Andrew W May 12, 2010 6:44 PM

Colleagues of mine at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media are trying to re-appropriate “See Something, Say Something” for a project-in-development called Hero Reports ( http://boston.heroreports.org/ ), building trust in a community by encouraging people to report random acts of civic courage. But with its slogan “See Something Different”, Hero Reports squarely places itself on the parody side of whatever copyright claim MTA could assert. Which, when it comes to parodying that campaign, really isn’t hard.

Sean May 12, 2010 6:51 PM

Radio Shack, You have the questions, we have the answers… Uh what is that, I’ve never seen it before?

Joe May 12, 2010 8:02 PM

Since terrorism has such a low incidence this program is clearly a waste of money. Drunk drivers kill far more people than terrorists here so increasing hotlines and responses to calls about people driving under the influence would be more useful.

Heck lightening kills more people than terrorists. So a hot line to report dangerous looking clouds would make more sense than this.

Kristian May 12, 2010 8:05 PM

@Jim I can see your point. This blog post seems a bit one-sided. There was an average citizen who reported the amateur in New York recently. Of course people can draw different conclusions from events like that though…

I’m just saying that if one is going to complain about some process not working perhaps they should suggest improvements or alternatives. Cheers.

yt May 13, 2010 12:52 AM

Oops. looks like I accidentally infringed on the slogan’s copyright in my movie plot threat contest story. I hope that doesn’t disqualify me.

@Henning Makholm: Non-anglophone northern Europe seems more level-headed about these things in general. Last Weekend someone tried to blow up the World Peace monument in Helsinki using, among other things, gas cylinder(s). The incident is being investigated as attempted major property damage.

@anon: “Some feel like creating an Uncle Sam poster?”

I think it’s been done, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it. Possibly on Wired’s Threat Level blog.

Clive Robinson May 13, 2010 5:56 AM

@ Billswift,

copyright -v- marks of trade

Without going into the whys and wherefores of which is a subset of the other and why one is implicit and the other needs not just to be registered but deffended by use and action, and why one is legaly stronger than the other and why in a given circumstance, not to mention why IP is a deliberatly murky area of law with different interpretations depending in who’s jurisdiction you are in…

The point I was aluding too was that of the ludicrous nature of such things as trying to “corner a common word slogan” and highlighting it by takeing it to a ridiculous extream. (All be it one that is actually possible).

TouchingMe May 13, 2010 7:21 AM

Touching You (a political gadfly and comedian) has a great bit on the “See Something, Say Something” posters.

bob May 13, 2010 9:58 AM

@Henning: to paraphrase the cliche – that is now this was then. If it was still “old” East Germany (the communist regime) you would have gotten seriously jacked up by wandering around a (downtown, big city) train station taking pictures of infrastructure.

Back when I went thru the Berlin wall in ’80 I had a newspaper and a history book (specifically “Fragen an die Deutsche Geschichte”) confiscated by border guards because it did not agree with the party line version of history.

tensor May 14, 2010 1:46 AM

“Yeah like Railfans. Way to go MTA making me feel like I am in East Germany as every time I want to take some interest in the Subway I have to watch out for informers.”

On my last visit to my sister, I was taking pictures of the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson, the interstate subway which connects New York City with New Jersey) station, which has beautiful decorations, each about a century old. (They’re probably immortalized on color plates in some history book in the local public library.) The Transit Photo Thought Police came along and told me to stop. We grew up in and around New York; we could probably reproduce those designs from memory if we had to.

“If you see something, say something.”

Why does this remind me of that wonderful take-down of an undergraduate dormitory’s most smug b.s. artist: “You think that when you’ve said something, you’ve done something”?

GreenSquirrel May 14, 2010 2:21 AM

@ Kristian at May 12, 2010 3:36 PM

“@peri What you said illustrates my point. Thanks. Seriously, what useful to you have to add to this topic.”

Seriously, what are you adding?

“@bob I’m just saying that this blog topic isn’t helping anything. Cheers.”

Neither are your comments. Cheers.

GreenSquirrel May 14, 2010 2:40 AM

Sometimes doing nothing is better than “something.”

Take this for example. We have the sort of argument that because maybe 1 in a 1000(*) reported suspicious incidents turns out to be a legitimate threat

Now given that every single report will have to be treated as legitimate until a professional LEO or similar has responded and investigated this means that there are 9999 false positives that are taking up police time. Risking another assumption, that each investigation takes 1 hour of time and we have 8 working hours per person per day, then we can see that this hotline is wasting 1250 man-days per year. Without days off this is 3 people fully occupied every day of a year investigating the false leads this line brings home.

Is that a cost effective security measure?

Sadly we have no way of knowing because initiatives like this are purely faith based.

We have a belief that it works, we have a belief that “anything” is worth doing as long as it saves “just one life” and as a result we get caught up in wasteful, inefficient and ineffective policies which downgrades our overall ability to do things which really help.

In the words of the Web2.0 generation.
Epic Fail.

(*) I think I am being generous there 16,191 calls and 1 “high profile” event, so I am assuming there were at least 15 other lower profile but genuine terrorist incidents. I doubt that a genuine terrorist incident wouldnt get high profile news coverage but, as I said, I am being generous…

John Mc May 14, 2010 11:52 AM

Campaign: See something, say something

Reality: Some idiot walked off without his bag. I can either continue on to work, or “say something” and shut down the entire subway system making me and 30,000 other people late for work.

Three guesses what me and everyone else does?

moo May 15, 2010 8:23 AM

@GreenSquirrel: maybe you meant 1 in 10,000 reported suspicious incidents turns out to be a real event. Either that or your math is off by a factor of 10. (But your point is still 100% correct.)

GreenSquirrel May 18, 2010 3:42 AM

@ moo at May 15, 2010 8:23 AM

(mathematics justification begins)

The reason I said 1 in 1000 was that I took the 16000 calls as generating 16 “real” events, including the 1 which actually turned out to be a bomb.

I fully appreciate this is a massively generous assumption and, given the likelihood that LEO/Government would have pounced on any chance to get positive PR all 16 hypothetical events would have got publicity the most reasonable assumption is there has only been 1 event for 16000 calls.

The problem is even 1 in 16000 is generous as you could include the previous years data to make it 1 in 43000.

Really good use of public money…


@ John Mc at May 14, 2010 11:52 AM

Always the case and one of the reasons why crazy ideas like this are doomed to failure …

tony May 18, 2010 8:07 AM

If you see something, google “Richard Jewel” and turn away from it.
Report a crime and you are a suspect.
The feebs thought this one up. they are feckless and corrupt. They have been crushing the bill of rights since 1919

GreeenSquirrel May 19, 2010 4:21 AM

By the way – I notice a similar system is in use on London Transport (www.tfl.gov.uk) with a large number of posters that have words to the effect of:

“If you see something suspcious report it to a member of our staff or the police”

Nowhere near as catchy but the same (slightly pointless) message. I wonder how many people are prepared to ruin their travel on the remote off-chance that the misplaced bag is an evil terrorist bomb.

W. David Stephenson November 8, 2010 8:59 PM

Like all of the DHS public outreach programs, these are woefully short on details, especially on how individuals can supply critical detail through use of their cell phone or video. The only decent program of this sort, IMHO, was created by PA several years ago: the Terrorism Awareness and Prevention program which, perhaps most important, pays a lot of attention to civil liberties and the fact that just because someone looks different from “us,” that they aren’t ipso facto terrorists.

inspector callahan January 24, 2011 11:25 AM

you can twist and bend this circus anyway you want, but until citizens re-capture a certain level of commonsense, dont expect nothing but miserable people trying to claim their 15 minutes anyway possible…this country already houses millions of educated idiots whom cherish any chance to “shake down” law biding citizens…and if think this has no political shadowing, then your a accident waiting to happen…most humans have a natural instinct to “survive”. commonsense reminds us of what should be wrong with “ANY” picture…remove commonsense, then simply add an agenda, “presto” ! if you see something( a opportunity to make life hard for your rival) ..hell yea ill say something (even if it holds no truth or evidence) “he said she said” B.S…this is considered controlled chaos by the liberal machine of community organizations…i.e acorn, seiu,moveon.org etc! people are nosey! and the general public,for the most part couldnt survive 3 days without a cell phone and a starbucks….this slogan should read= if you plan on saying something, you better make “damn” sure of what you saw…..they cant “MAKE” a witness protection plan big enough for the number of idiots whom have nothing better to do than fabricate stories to simply amuse themselves…good luck-chances are your gonna need it !!!!!

Killgeorge February 7, 2011 10:27 AM

I assume it’s specifically intended to encourage the reporting of photographers who are taking pictures that don’t include their family members. Photography is a sure prelude to a terrorist plot, so it’s incumbent on all patriotic citizens to inform authorities about it. If the photographer can prove his innocence, he might get his camera back.

Ans as for “amateur security,” are you perhaps referring to the TSA?

Posted by: George at May 12, 2010 10:18 AM

I pledge to spend the rest of my life finding you George. You will pay for this.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.