Entries Tagged "fear"

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The Ubiquity of Cyber-Fears

A new study concludes that more people are worried about cyber threats than terrorism.

…the three highest priorities for Americans when it comes to security issues in the presidential campaign are:

  1. Protecting government computer systems against hackers and criminals (74 percent)
  2. Protecting our electric power grid, water utilities and transportation systems against computer or terrorist attacks (73 percent)
  3. Homeland security issues such as terrorism (68 percent)

Posted on May 24, 2012 at 11:31 AMView Comments

U.S. Exports Terrorism Fears

To New Zealand:

United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has warned the New Zealand Government about the latest terrorist threat known as “body bombers.”


“Do we have specific credible evidence of a [body bomb] threat today? I would not say that we do, however, the importance is that we all lean forward.”

Why the headline of this article is “NZ warned over ‘body bombers,'” and not “Napolitano admits ‘no credible evidence’ of body bomber threat” is beyond me.

Posted on May 15, 2012 at 6:17 AMView Comments

Fear and the Attention Economy

danah boyd is thinking about — in a draft essay, and as a recording of a presentation — fear and the attention economy. Basically, she is making the argument that the attention economy magnifies the culture of fear because fear is a good way to get attention, and that this is being made worse by the rise of social media.

A lot of this isn’t new. Fear has been used to sell products (I’ve written about that here) and policy (“Remember the Maine!” “Remember the Alamo! “Remember 9/11!”) since forever. Newspapers have used fear to attract readers since there were readers. Long before there were child predators on the Internet, irrational panics swept society. Shark attacks in the 1970s. Marijuana in the 1950s. boyd relates a story from Glassner’s The Culture of Fear about elderly women being mugged in the 1990s.

These fears have largely been driven from the top down: from political leaders, from the news media. What’s new today — and I agree this is very interesting — is that in addition to these traditional top-down fears, we’re also seeing fears come from the bottom up. Social media are allowing all of us to sow fear and, because fear gets attention, is enticing us to do so. Rather than fostering empathy and bringing us all together, social media might be pushing us further apart.

A lot of this is related to my own writing about trust. Fear causes us to mistrust a group we’re fearful of, and to more strongly trust the group we’re a part of. It’s natural, and it can be manipulated. It can be amplified, and it can be dampened. How social media are both enabling and undermining trust is a really important thing for us to understand. As boyd says: “What we design and how we design it matters. And how our systems are used also matters, even if those uses aren’t what we intended.”

Posted on April 25, 2012 at 6:51 AMView Comments

Dumb Risk of the Day

Geotagged images of children:

Joanne Kuzma of the University of Worcester, England, has analyzed photos that clearly show children’s faces on the photo sharing site Flickr. She found that a significant proportion of those analyzed were geotagged and a large number of those were associated with 50 of the more expensive residential zip codes in the USA.

The location information could possibly be used to locate a child’s home or other location based on information publicly available on Flickr,” explains Kuzma. “Publishing geolocation data raises concerns about privacy and security of children when such personalized information is available to internet users who may have dubious reasons for accessing this data.”

It’s children, though, so it’s going to be hard to have a rational risk discussion about this topic.

Posted on February 15, 2012 at 1:11 PMView Comments

Feeling vs. Reality of Security in Sparrows

Sparrows have fewer surviving offspring if they feel insecure, regardless of whether they actually are insecure. Liana Y. Zanette, Aija F. White, Marek C. Allen, and Michael Clinchy, “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year,” Science, 9 Dec 2011:

Abstract: Predator effects on prey demography have traditionally been ascribed solely to direct killing in studies of population ecology and wildlife management. Predators also affect the prey’s perception of predation risk, but this has not been thought to meaningfully affect prey demography. We isolated the effects of perceived predation risk in a free-living population of song sparrows by actively eliminating direct predation and used playbacks of predator calls and sounds to manipulate perceived risk. We found that the perception of predation risk alone reduced the number of offspring produced per year by 40%. Our results suggest that the perception of predation risk is itself powerful enough to affect wildlife population dynamics, and should thus be given greater consideration in vertebrate conservation and management.

Seems as if the sparrows could use a little security theater.

Posted on December 14, 2011 at 1:22 PMView Comments

Yet More Fear-Mongering from the DHS

Al Qaeda is sewing bombs into people. Actually, not really. This is an “aspirational” terrorist threat, which basically means that someone mentioned it while drunk in a bar somewhere. Of course, that won’t stop the DHS from trying to terrorize people with the idea and the security-industrial complex from selling us an expensive “solution” to reduce our fears.

Wired: “So: a disruptive, potentially expensive panic based on a wild aspirational scheme? Actually, that sounds a lot like al-Qaida. And the TSA.”

Me: “Refuse to be terrorized.”

Posted on December 14, 2011 at 6:17 AMView Comments

The DHS Partners with Major League Soccer to Promote Fear

It seems to be harder and harder to keep people scared:

The Department’s “If You See Something, Say Something™” partnership with the MLS Cup will feature a “If You See Something, Say Something™” graphic that will aired on the video board during the MLS Cup championship game in Carson City, Calif. Safety messaging will also be printed on the back of MLS Cup credentials for staff, players, and volunteers and in game day programs distributed to fans. Throughout the MLS season “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign graphics appeared on video boards and on the MLS website, and the “If You See Something, Say Something™” Public Service Announcement was read at games.

Will there also be “If You See Something, Say Something™” Day, with Janet Napolitano bobbleheads given to all the kids?

This kind of thing only serves to ratchet up fear, and doesn’t make us any safer. I’ve written about this before.

Posted on November 28, 2011 at 7:26 AMView Comments

Terrorism in the U.S. Since 9/11

John Mueller and his students analyze the 33 cases of attempted [EDITED TO ADD: Islamic extremist] terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11. So few of them are actually real, and so many of them were created or otherwise facilitated by law enforcement.

The death toll of all these is fourteen: thirteen at Ft. Hood and one in Little Rock. I think it’s fair to add to this the 2002 incident at Los Angeles Airport where a lone gunman killed two people at the El Al ticket counter, so that’s sixteen deaths in the U.S. to terrorism in the past ten years.

Given the credible estimate that we’ve spent $1 trillion on anti-terrorism security (this does not include our many foreign wars), that’s $62.5 billion per life [EDITED: lost]. Is there any other risk that we are even remotely as crazy about?

Note that everyone who died was shot with a gun. No Islamic extremist has been able to successfully detonate a bomb in the U.S. in the past ten years, not even a Molotov cocktail. (In the U.K. there has only been one successful terrorist bombing in the last ten years; the 2005 London Underground attacks.) And almost all of the 33 incidents (34 if you add LAX) have been lone actors, with no ties to al Qaeda.

I remember the government fear mongering after 9/11. How there were hundreds of sleeper cells in the U.S. How terrorism would become the new normal unless we implemented all sorts of Draconian security measures. You’d think that — if this were even remotely true — we would have seen more attempted terrorism in the U.S. over the past decade.

And I think arguments like “the government has secretly stopped lots of plots” don’t hold any water. Just look at the list, and remember how the Bush administration would hype even the most tenuous terrorist incident. Stoking fear was the policy. If the government stopped any other plots, they would have made as much of a big deal of them as they did of these 33 incidents.

EDITED TO ADD (8/26): According to the State Department’s recent report, fifteen American private citizens died in terrorist attacks in 2010: thirteen in Afghanistan and one each in Iraq and Uganda. Worldwide, 13,186 people died from terrorism in 2010. These numbers pale even in comparison to things that aren’t very risky.

Here’s data on incidents from 1970 to 2004. And here’s Nate Silver with data showing that the 1970s and 1980s were more dangerous with respect to airplane terrorism than the 2000s.

Also, look at Table 3 on page 16. The risk of dying in the U.S. from terrorism is substantially less than the risk of drowning in your bathtub, the risk of a home appliance killing you, or the risk of dying in an accident caused by a deer. Remember that more people die every month in automobile crashes than died in 9/11.

EDITED TO ADD (8/26): Looking over the incidents again, some of them would make pretty good movie plots. The point of my “movie-plot threat” phrase is not that terrorist attacks are never like that, but that concentrating defensive resources against them is pointless because 1) there are too many of them and 2) it is too easy for the terrorists to change tactics or targets.

EDITED TO ADD (9/1): As was pointed out here, I accidentally typed “lives saved” when I meant to type “lives lost.” I corrected that, above. We generally have a regulatory safety goal of $1 – $10M per life saved. In order for the $100B we have spent per year on counterterrorism to be worth it, it would need to have saved 10,000 lives per year.

Posted on August 26, 2011 at 6:26 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.