Entries Tagged "kidnapping"

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Amber Alerts As Security Theater

Interesting analysis:

Since its birth 12 years ago after a fatal kidnapping in Texas, Amber Alert has quickly become one of the best-known tools in the national law enforcement arsenal. The warnings are familiar to anyone who watches cable TV news, especially during the summer, when the drumbeat of abduction stories seems to increase. Last year, 227 alerts were issued nationwide, each galvanizing interest in the local community and flooding police with tips. While the particulars of the state systems differ, the goal is the same: to disperse news of a kidnapping as widely and quickly as possible, in the hope that someone will spot the kidnapper before a child is harmed.

The program’s champions say that its successes have been dramatic. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 400 children have been saved by Amber Alerts. Of the 17 children Massachusetts has issued alerts on since it created its system in 2003, all have been safely returned.

These are encouraging statistics — but also deeply misleading, according to some of the only outside scholars to examine the system in depth. In the first independent study of whether Amber Alerts work, a team led by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin looked at hundreds of abduction cases between 2003 and 2006 and found that Amber Alerts — for all their urgency and drama — actually accomplish little. In most cases where they were issued, Griffin found, Amber Alerts played no role in the eventual return of abducted children. Their successes were generally in child custody fights that didn’t pose a risk to the child. And in those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives.

Posted on August 11, 2008 at 7:59 AMView Comments

Virtual Kidnapping

A real crime in Mexico:

“We’ve got your child,” he says in rapid-fire Spanish, usually adding an expletive for effect and then rattling off a list of demands that might include cash or jewels dropped off at a certain street corner or a sizable deposit made to a local bank.

The twist is that little Pablo or Teresa is safe and sound at school, not duct-taped to a chair in a rundown flophouse somewhere or stuffed in the back of a pirate taxi. But when the cellphone call comes in, that is not at all clear.


But identifying the phone numbers — they are now listed on a government Web site — has done little to slow the extortion calls. Nearly all the calls are from cellphones, most of them stolen, authorities say.

On top of that, many extortionists are believed to be pulling off the scams from prisons.

Authorities say hundreds of different criminal gangs are engaged in various telephone scams. Besides the false kidnappings, callers falsely tell people they have won cars or money. Sometimes, people are told to turn off their cellphones for an hour so the service can be repaired; then, relatives are called and told that the cellphone’s owner has been kidnapped. Ransom demands have even been made by text message.

Posted on April 29, 2008 at 5:29 AMView Comments

Fraudulent Amber Alerts

Amber Alerts are general notifications in the first few hours after a child has been abducted. The idea is that if you get the word out quickly, you have a better chance of recovering the child.

There’s an interesting social dynamic here, though. If you issue too many of these, the public starts ignoring them. This is doubly true if the alerts turn out to be false.

That’s why two hoax Amber Alerts in September (one in Miami and the other in North Carolina) are a big deal. And it’s a disturbing trend. Here’s data from 2004:

Out of 233 Amber Alerts issued last year, at least 46 were made for children who were lost, had run away or were the subjects of hoaxes and misunderstandings, according to the Scripps Howard study, which used records from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Police also violated federal and state guidelines by issuing dozens of vague alerts with little information upon which the public can act. The study found that 23 alerts were issued last year even though police didn’t know the name of the child who supposedly had been abducted. Twenty-five alerts were issued without complete details about the suspect or a description of the vehicle used in the abduction.

Think of it as a denial-of-service attack against the real world.

Posted on October 5, 2007 at 11:00 AMView Comments

Childhood Safety vs. Childhood Health

Another example of how we get the risks wrong:

Although statistics show that rates of child abduction and sexual abuse have marched steadily downward since the early 1990s, fear of these crimes is at an all-time high. Even the panic-inducing Megan’s Law Web site says stranger abduction is rare and that 90 percent of child sexual-abuse cases are committed by someone known to the child. Yet we still suffer a crucial disconnect between perception of crime and its statistical reality. A child is almost as likely to be struck by lightning as kidnapped by a stranger, but it’s not fear of lightning strikes that parents cite as the reason for keeping children indoors watching television instead of out on the sidewalk skipping rope.

And when a child is parked on the living room floor, he or she may be safe, but is safety the sole objective of parenting? The ultimate goal is independence, and independence is best fostered by handing it out a little at a time, not by withholding it in a trembling fist that remains clenched until it’s time to move into the dorms.

Meanwhile, as rates of child abduction and abuse move down, rates of Type II diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related ailments in children move up. That means not all the candy is coming from strangers. Which scenario should provoke more panic: the possibility that your child might become one of the approximately 100 children who are kidnapped by strangers each year, or one of the country’s 58 million overweight adults?

Posted on April 12, 2007 at 6:05 AMView Comments

In Praise of Security Theater

While visiting some friends and their new baby in the hospital last week, I noticed an interesting bit of security. To prevent infant abduction, all babies had RFID tags attached to their ankles by a bracelet. There are sensors on the doors to the maternity ward, and if a baby passes through, an alarm goes off.

Infant abduction is rare, but still a risk. In the last 22 years, about 233 such abductions have occurred in the United States. About 4 million babies are born each year, which means that a baby has a 1-in-375,000 chance of being abducted. Compare this with the infant mortality rate in the U.S. — one in 145 — and it becomes clear where the real risks are.

And the 1-in-375,000 chance is not today’s risk. Infant abduction rates have plummeted in recent years, mostly due to education programs at hospitals.

So why are hospitals bothering with RFID bracelets? I think they’re primarily to reassure the mothers. Many times during my friends’ stay at the hospital the doctors had to take the baby away for this or that test. Millions of years of evolution have forged a strong bond between new parents and new baby; the RFID bracelets are a low-cost way to ensure that the parents are more relaxed when their baby was out of their sight.

Security is both a reality and a feeling. The reality of security is mathematical, based on the probability of different risks and the effectiveness of different countermeasures. We know the infant abduction rates and how well the bracelets reduce those rates. We also know the cost of the bracelets, and can thus calculate whether they’re a cost-effective security measure or not. But security is also a feeling, based on individual psychological reactions to both the risks and the countermeasures. And the two things are different: You can be secure even though you don’t feel secure, and you can feel secure even though you’re not really secure.

The RFID bracelets are what I’ve come to call security theater: security primarily designed to make you feel more secure. I’ve regularly maligned security theater as a waste, but it’s not always, and not entirely, so.

It’s only a waste if you consider the reality of security exclusively. There are times when people feel less secure than they actually are. In those cases — like with mothers and the threat of baby abduction — a palliative countermeasure that primarily increases the feeling of security is just what the doctor ordered.

Tamper-resistant packaging for over-the-counter drugs started to appear in the 1980s, in response to some highly publicized poisonings. As a countermeasure, it’s largely security theater. It’s easy to poison many foods and over-the-counter medicines right through the seal — with a syringe, for example — or to open and replace the seal well enough that an unwary consumer won’t detect it. But in the 1980s, there was a widespread fear of random poisonings in over-the-counter medicines, and tamper-resistant packaging brought people’s perceptions of the risk more in line with the actual risk: minimal.

Much of the post-9/11 security can be explained by this as well. I’ve often talked about the National Guard troops in airports right after the terrorist attacks, and the fact that they had no bullets in their guns. As a security countermeasure, it made little sense for them to be there. They didn’t have the training necessary to improve security at the checkpoints, or even to be another useful pair of eyes. But to reassure a jittery public that it’s OK to fly, it was probably the right thing to do.

Security theater also addresses the ancillary risk of lawsuits. Lawsuits are ultimately decided by juries, or settled because of the threat of jury trial, and juries are going to decide cases based on their feelings as well as the facts. It’s not enough for a hospital to point to infant abduction rates and rightly claim that RFID bracelets aren’t worth it; the other side is going to put a weeping mother on the stand and make an emotional argument. In these cases, security theater provides real security against the legal threat.

Like real security, security theater has a cost. It can cost money, time, concentration, freedoms and so on. It can come at the cost of reducing the things we can do. Most of the time security theater is a bad trade-off, because the costs far outweigh the benefits. But there are instances when a little bit of security theater makes sense.

We make smart security trade-offs — and by this I mean trade-offs for genuine security — when our feeling of security closely matches the reality. When the two are out of alignment, we get security wrong. Security theater is no substitute for security reality, but, used correctly, security theater can be a way of raising our feeling of security so that it more closely matches the reality of security. It makes us feel more secure handing our babies off to doctors and nurses, buying over-the-counter medicines, and flying on airplanes — closer to how secure we should feel if we had all the facts and did the math correctly.

Of course, too much security theater and our feeling of security becomes greater than the reality, which is also bad. And others — politicians, corporations and so on — can use security theater to make us feel more secure without doing the hard work of actually making us secure. That’s the usual way security theater is used, and why I so often malign it.

But to write off security theater completely is to ignore the feeling of security. And as long as people are involved with security trade-offs, that’s never going to work.

This essay appeared on Wired.com, and is dedicated to my new godson, Nicholas Quillen Perry.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Portuguese.

Posted on January 25, 2007 at 5:50 AMView Comments

Kent Robbery

Something like 50 million pounds was stolen from a banknote storage depot in the UK. BBC has a good chronology of the theft.

The Times writes:

Large-scale cash robbery was once a technical challenge: drilling through walls, short-circuiting alarms, gagging guards and stationing the get-away car. Today, the weak points in the banks’ defences are not grilles and vaults, but human beings. Stealing money is now partly a matter of psychology. The success of the Tonbridge robbers depended on terrifying Mr Dixon into opening the doors. They had studied their victim. They knew the route he took home, and how he would respond when his wife and child were in mortal danger. It did not take gelignite to blow open the vaults; it took fear, in the hostage technique known as “tiger kidnapping”, so called because of the predatory stalking that precedes it. Tiger kidnapping is the point where old-fashioned crime meets modern terrorism.

Posted on February 27, 2006 at 12:26 PMView Comments

Fingerprinting Students

A nascent security trend in the U.S. is tracking schoolchildren when they get on and off school buses.

Hoping to prevent the loss of a child through kidnapping or more innocent circumstances, a few schools have begun monitoring student arrivals and departures using technology similar to that used to track livestock and pallets of retail shipments.

A school district in Spring, Texas, is using computerized ID badges to record this information, and wirelessly sending it to police headquarters. Another school district, in Phoenix, is doing the same thing with fingerprint readers. The system is supposed to help prevent the loss of a child, whether through kidnapping or accident.

What’s going on here? Have these people lost their minds? Tracking kids as they get on and off school buses is a ridiculous idea. It’s expensive, invasive, and doesn’t increase security very much.

Security is always a trade-off. In Beyond Fear, I delineated a five-step process to evaluate security countermeasures. The idea is to be able to determine, rationally, whether a countermeasure is worth it. In the book, I applied the five-step process to everything from home burglar alarms to military action against terrorism. Let’s apply it in this case.

Step 1: What assets are you trying to protect? Children.

Step 2: What are the risks to these assets? Loss of the child, either due to kidnapping or accident. Child kidnapping is a serious problem in the U.S.; the odds of a child being abducted by a family member are one in 340 and by a non-family member are 1 in 1200 (per year). (These statistics are for 1999, and are from NISMART-2, U.S. Department of Justice. My guess is that the current rates in Spring, Texas, are much lower.) Very few of these kidnappings involve school buses, so it’s unclear how serious the specific risks being addressed here are.

Step 3: How well does the security solution mitigate those risks? Not very well.

Let’s imagine how this system might provide security in the event of a kidnapping. If a kidnapper — assume it’s someone the child knows — goes onto the school bus and takes the child off at the wrong stop, the system would record that. Otherwise — if the kidnapping took place either before the child got on the bus or after the child got off — the system wouldn’t record anything suspicious. Yes, it would tell investigators if the kidnapping happened before morning attendance and either before or after the school bus ride, but is that one piece of information worth this entire tracking system? I doubt it.

You could imagine a movie-plot scenario where this kind of tracking system could help the hero recover the kidnapped child, but it hardly seems useful in the general case.

Step 4: What other risks does the security solution cause? The additional risk is the data collected through constant surveillance. Where is this information collected? Who has access to it? How long is it stored? These are important security questions that get no mention.

Step 5: What costs and trade-offs does the security solution impose? There are two. The first is obvious: money. I don’t have it figured, but it’s expensive to outfit every child with an ID card and every school bus with this system. The second cost is more intangible: a loss of privacy. We are raising children who think it normal that their daily movements are watched and recorded by the police. That feeling of privacy is not something we should give up lightly.

So, finally: is this system worth it? No. The security gained is not worth the money and privacy spent. If the goal is to make children safer, the money would be better spent elsewhere: guards at the schools, education programs for the children, etc.

If this system makes so little sense, why have at least two cities in the U.S. implemented it? The obvious answer is that the school districts didn’t think the problem through. Either they were seduced by the technology, or by the companies that built the system. But there’s another, more interesting, possibility.

In Beyond Fear, I talk about the notion of agenda. The five-step process is a subjective one, and should be evaluated from the point of view of the person making the trade-off decision. If you imagine that the school officials are making the trade-off, then the system suddenly makes sense.

If a kidnapping occurs on school property, the subsequent investigation could easily hurt school officials. They could even lose their jobs. If you view this security countermeasure as one protecting them just as much as it protects children, it suddenly makes more sense. The trade-off might not be worth it in general, but it’s worth it to them.

Kidnapping is a real problem, and countermeasures that help reduce the risk are a good thing. But remember that security is always a trade off, and a good security system is one where the security benefits are worth the money, convenience, and liberties that are being given up. Quite simply, this system isn’t worth it.

Posted on January 11, 2005 at 9:49 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.