The DHS is Getting Rid of the Color-Coded Terrorism Alert System
Good. It was always a dumb idea:
The color-coded threat levels were doomed to fail because “they don’t tell people what they can do – they just make people afraid,” said Bruce Schneier, an author on security issues. He said the system was “a relic of our panic after 9/11” that “never served any security purpose.”
I wrote this in 2004:
In theory, the warnings are supposed to cultivate an atmosphere of preparedness. If Americans are vigilant against the terrorist threat, then maybe the terrorists will be caught and their plots foiled. And repeated warnings brace Americans for the aftermath of another attack.
The problem is that the warnings don’t do any of this. Because they are so vague and so frequent, and because they don’t recommend any useful actions that people can take, terror threat warnings don’t prevent terrorist attacks. They might force a terrorist to delay his plan temporarily, or change his target. But in general, professional security experts like me are not particularly impressed by systems that merely force the bad guys to make minor modifications in their tactics.
And the alerts don’t result in a more vigilant America. It’s one thing to issue a hurricane warning, and advise people to board up their windows and remain in the basement. Hurricanes are short-term events, and it’s obvious when the danger is imminent and when it’s over. People can do useful things in response to a hurricane warning; then there is a discrete period when their lives are markedly different, and they feel there was utility in the higher alert mode, even if nothing came of it.
It’s quite another thing to tell people to be on alert, but not to alter their plans, as Americans were instructed last Christmas. A terrorist alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic, without giving people anything to do in response, is ineffective. Indeed, it inspires terror itself. Compare people’s reactions to hurricane threats with their reactions to earthquake threats. According to scientists, California is expecting a huge earthquake sometime in the next two hundred years. Even though the magnitude of the disaster will be enormous, people just can’t stay alert for two centuries. The news seems to have generated the same levels of short-term fear and long-term apathy in Californians that the terrorist warnings do. It’s human nature; people simply can’t be vigilant indefinitely.
Another alert system to compare this one to is the DEFCON system. At each DEFCON level, there are specific actions people have to take: at one DEFCON level — and I’m making this up — you call everyone back from leave, at another you fuel all the bombers, at another you arm the bombs, and so on. What actions am I supposed to take when the terrorist threat level is Yellow? When it is Orange? I have no idea.
EDITED TO ADD (11/25): Good observation:
The DHS National Threat Advisory is a public alert system. That a public alert system is indicating imminent disaster is not surprising. In fact it’s inevitable. It’s the nature of public alert systems to signal imminent disaster at all times. I’ve composed “Blakley’s Law” (next time I come up with one of these I’ll rename this one “Blakley’s First Law”) to describe the phenomenon:
“Every public alert system’s status indicator rises until it reaches its disaster imminent setting and remains at that setting until it is retired from service.”
It’s easy to see why Blakley’s law holds: if something terrible happens and the alert status didn’t predict it, the keepers of the alert status will be blamed for not preparing us for the disaster. Setting the alert status to “Disaster imminent” when no disaster is likely costs the public some money and mental health, but it doesn’t hurt them in other ways. On the other hand, setting the alert status to “Don’t worry, be happy” just before a disaster does happen is the worst case for everyone – nobody prepares for the disaster, and the people in power lose their jobs for failing to prevent or prepare for the crisis.