Bomb Threats As a Denial-of-Service Attack
The University of Pittsburgh has been the recipient of 50 bomb threats in the past two months (over 30 during the last week). Each time, the university evacuates the threatened building, searches it top to bottom—one of the threatened buildings is the 42-story Cathedral of Learning—finds nothing, and eventually resumes classes. This seems to be nothing more than a very effective denial-of-service attack.
Police have no leads. The threats started out as handwritten messages on bathroom walls, but are now being sent via e-mail and anonymous remailers. (Here is a blog and a
Google Docs spreadsheet documenting the individual threats.)
The University is implementing some pretty annoying security theater in response:
To enter secured buildings, we all will need to present a University of Pittsburgh ID card. It is important to understand that book bags, backpacks and packages will not be allowed. There will be single entrances to buildings so there will be longer waiting times to get into the buildings. In addition, non-University of Pittsburgh residents will not be allowed in the residence halls.
I can’t see how this will help, but what else can the University do? Their incentives are such that they’re stuck overreacting. If they ignore the threats and they’re wrong, people will be fired. If they overreact to the threats and they’re wrong, they’ll be forgiven. There’s no incentive to do an actual cost-benefit analysis of the security measures.
For the attacker, though, the cost-benefit payoff is enormous. E-mails are cheap, and the response they induce is very expensive.
If you have any information about the bomb threatener, contact the FBI. There’s a $50,000 reward waiting for you. For the university, paying that would be a bargain.