Entries Tagged "risk assessment"

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Common Risks in America: Cars and Guns

I have long said that driving a car is the most dangerous thing regularly do in our lives. Turns out deaths due to automobiles are declining, while deaths due to firearms are on the rise:

Guns and cars have long been among the leading causes of non-medical deaths in the U.S. By 2015, firearm fatalities will probably exceed traffic fatalities for the first time, based on data compiled by Bloomberg.

While motor-vehicle deaths dropped 22 percent from 2005 to 2010, gun fatalities are rising again after a low point in 2000, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shooting deaths in 2015 will probably rise to almost 33,000, and those related to autos will decline to about 32,000, based on the 10-year average trend.

There’s also this story.

Posted on January 16, 2015 at 6:19 AMView Comments

The Risk of Unfounded Ebola Fears

Good essay.

Worry about Ebola (or anything) manifests physically as what’s known as a fight, flight, or freeze response. Biological systems ramp up or down to focus the body’s resources on the threat at hand. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, immune function is suppressed (after an initial burst), brain chemistry changes, and the normal functioning of the digestive system is interrupted, among other effects. Like fear itself, these changes are protective in the short term. But when they persist, the changes prompted by chronic stress — defined as stress beyond the normal hassles of life, lasting at least one to two weeks — are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in America); increased likelihood and severity of clinical depression (suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America); depressed memory formation and recall; impaired fertility; reduced bone growth; and gastrointestinal disorders.

Perhaps most insidious of all, by suppressing our immune systems, chronic stress makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases, or suffer more­ — or die­ — from diseases that a healthy immune system would be better able to control. The fear of Ebola may well have an impact on the breadth and severity of how many people get sick, or die, from influenza this flu season. (The CDC reports that, either directly or indirectly, influenza kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people per year.)

There is no question that America’s physical, economic, and social health is far more at risk from the fear of Ebola than from the virus itself.

Posted on January 13, 2015 at 7:10 AMView Comments

Survey on What Americans Fear

Interesting data:

Turning to the crime section of the Chapman Survey on American Fears, the team discovered findings that not only surprised them, but also those who work in fields pertaining to crime.

“What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Dr. Edward Day who led this portion of the research and analysis. “When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans do not feel like the United States is becoming a safer place. The Chapman Survey on American Fears asked how they think prevalence of several crimes today compare with 20 years ago. In all cases, the clear majority of respondents were pessimistic; and in all cases Americans believe crime has at least remained steady. Crimes specifically asked about were: child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killing and sexual assault.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Direct link to the data as well as the survey methodology.

Posted on October 28, 2014 at 1:03 PMView Comments

Security Trade-offs of Cloud Backup

This is a good essay on the security trade-offs with cloud backup:

iCloud backups have not eliminated this problem, but they have made it far less common. This is, like almost everything in tech, a trade-off:

  • Your data is far safer from irretrievable loss if it is synced/backed up, regularly, to a cloud-based service.
  • Your data is more at risk of being stolen if it is synced/backed up, regularly, to a cloud-based service.

Ideally, the companies that provide such services minimize the risk of your account being hijacked while maximizing the simplicity and ease of setting it up and using it. But clearly these two goals are in conflict. There’s no way around the fact that the proper balance is somewhere in between maximal security and minimal complexity.

Further, I would wager heavily that there are thousands and thousands more people who have been traumatized by irretrievable data loss (who would have been saved if they’d had cloud-based backups) than those who have been victimized by having their cloud-based accounts hijacked (who would have been saved if they had only stored their data locally on their devices).

It is thus, in my opinion, terribly irresponsible to advise people to blindly not trust Apple (or Google, or Dropbox, or Microsoft, etc.) with “any of your data” without emphasizing, clearly and adamantly, that by only storing their data on-device, they greatly increase the risk of losing everything.

It’s true. For most people, the risk of data loss is greater than the risk of data theft.

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 2:17 PMView Comments

Irrational Fear of Risks Against Our Children

There’s a horrible story of a South Carolina mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play alone at a park while she was at work. The article linked to another article about a woman convicted of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” for leaving her 4-year-old son in the car for a few minutes. That article contains some excellent commentary by the very sensible Free Range Kids blogger Lenore Skenazy:

“Listen,” she said at one point. “Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day — and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger. “So there is some risk to leaving your kid in a car,” she argues. It might not be statistically meaningful but it’s not nonexistent. The problem is,”she goes on, “there’s some risk to every choice you make. So, say you take the kid inside with you. There’s some risk you’ll both be hit by a crazy driver in the parking lot. There’s some risk someone in the store will go on a shooting spree and shoot your kid. There’s some risk he’ll slip on the ice on the sidewalk outside the store and fracture his skull. There’s some risk no matter what you do. So why is one choice illegal and one is OK? Could it be because the one choice inconveniences you, makes your life a little harder, makes parenting a little harder, gives you a little less time or energy than you would have otherwise had?”

Later on in the conversation, Skenazy boils it down to this. “There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”

Skenazy has some choice words about the South Carolina story as well:

But, “What if a man would’ve come and snatched her?” said a woman interviewed by the TV station.

To which I must ask: In broad daylight? In a crowded park? Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn’t mean it’s happening all the time in real life. Make “what if?” thinking the basis for an arrest and the cops can collar anyone. “You let your son play in the front yard? What if a man drove up and kidnapped him?” “You let your daughter sleep in her own room? What if a man climbed through the window?” etc.

These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they’re not. Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.


Posted on August 11, 2014 at 9:34 AMView Comments

Risk-Based Authentication

I like this idea of giving each individual login attempt a risk score, based on the characteristics of the attempt:

The risk score estimates the risk associated with a log-in attempt based on a user’s typical log-in and usage profile, taking into account their device and geographic location, the system they’re trying to access, the time of day they typically log in, their device’s IP address, and even their typing speed. An employee logging into a CRM system using the same laptop, at roughly the same time of day, from the same location and IP address will have a low risk score. By contrast, an attempt to access a finance system from a tablet at night in Bali could potentially yield an elevated risk score.

Risk thresholds for individual systems are established based on the sensitivity of the information they store and the impact if the system were breached. Systems housing confidential financial data, for example, will have a low risk threshold.

If the risk score for a user’s access attempt exceeds the system’s risk threshold, authentication controls are automatically elevated, and the user may be required to provide a higher level of authentication, such as a PIN or token. If the risk score is too high, it may be rejected outright.

Posted on November 7, 2013 at 7:06 AMView Comments

Excess Automobile Deaths as a Result of 9/11

People commented about a point I made in a recent essay:

In the months after 9/11, so many people chose to drive instead of fly that the resulting deaths dwarfed the deaths from the terrorist attack itself, because cars are much more dangerous than airplanes.

Yes, that’s wrong. Where I said “months,” I should have said “years.”

I got the sound bite from John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart’s book, Terror, Security, and Money. This is footnote 19 from Chapter 1:

The inconvenience of extra passenger screening and added costs at airports after 9/11 cause many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination instead, and, since airline travel is far safer than car travel, this has led to an increase of 500 U.S. traffic fatalities per year. Using DHS-mandated value of statistical life at $6.5 million, this equates to a loss of $3.2 billion per year, or $32 billion over the period 2002 to 2011 (Blalock et al. 2007).

The authors make the same point in this earlier (and shorter) essay:

Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated in one study to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year.

The references are:

  • Garrick Blalock, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Daniel H. Simon. 2007. “The Impact of Post-9/11 Airport Security Measures on the Demand for Air Travel.” Journal of Law and Economics 50(4) November: 731­–755.
  • Garrick Blalock, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Daniel H. Simon. 2009. “Driving Fatalities after 9/11: A Hidden Cost of Terrorism.” Applied Economics 41(14): 1717­–1729.

Business Week makes the same point here.

There’s also this reference:

  • Michael Sivak and Michael J. Flannagan. 2004. “Consequences for road traffic fatalities of the reduction in flying following September 11, 2001.” Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behavior 7 (4).

Abstract: Gigerenzer (Gigerenzer, G. (2004). Dread risk, September 11, and fatal traffic accidents. Psychological Science, 15 , 286­287) argued that the increased fear of flying in the U.S. after September 11 resulted in a partial shift from flying to driving on rural interstate highways, with a consequent increase of 353 road traffic fatalities for October through December 2001. We reevaluated the consequences of September 11 by utilizing the trends in road traffic fatalities from 2000 to 2001 for January through August. We also examined which road types and traffic participants contributed most to the increased road fatalities. We conclude that (1) the partial modal shift after September 11 resulted in 1018 additional road fatalities for the three months in question, which is substantially more than estimated by Gigerenzer, (2) the major part of the increased toll occurred on local roads, arguing against a simple modal shift from flying to driving to the same destinations, (3) driver fatalities did not increase more than in proportion to passenger fatalities, and (4) pedestrians and bicyclists bore a disproportionate share of the increased fatalities.

This is another analysis.

Posted on September 9, 2013 at 6:20 AMView Comments

Our Newfound Fear of Risk

We’re afraid of risk. It’s a normal part of life, but we’re increasingly unwilling to accept it at any level. So we turn to technology to protect us. The problem is that technological security measures aren’t free. They cost money, of course, but they cost other things as well. They often don’t provide the security they advertise, and — paradoxically — they often increase risk somewhere else. This problem is particularly stark when the risk involves another person: crime, terrorism, and so on. While technology has made us much safer against natural risks like accidents and disease, it works less well against man-made risks.

Three examples:

  1. We have allowed the police to turn themselves into a paramilitary organization. They deploy SWAT teams multiple times a day, almost always in nondangerous situations. They tase people at minimal provocation, often when it’s not warranted. Unprovoked shootings are on the rise. One result of these measures is that honest mistakes — a wrong address on a warrant, a misunderstanding — result in the terrorizing of innocent people, and more death in what were once nonviolent confrontations with police.
  2. We accept zero-tolerance policies in schools. This results in ridiculous situations, where young children are suspended for pointing gun-shaped fingers at other students or drawing pictures of guns with crayons, and high-school students are disciplined for giving each other over-the-counter pain relievers. The cost of these policies is enormous, both in dollars to implement and its long-lasting effects on students.
  3. We have spent over one trillion dollars and thousands of lives fighting terrorism in the past decade — including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — money that could have been better used in all sorts of ways. We now know that the NSA has turned into a massive domestic surveillance organization, and that its data is also used by other government organizations, which then lie about it. Our foreign policy has changed for the worse: we spy on everyone, we trample human rights abroad, our drones kill indiscriminately, and our diplomatic outposts have either closed down or become fortresses. In the months after 9/11, so many people chose to drive instead of fly that the resulting deaths dwarfed the deaths from the terrorist attack itself, because cars are much more dangerous than airplanes.

There are lots more examples, but the general point is that we tend to fixate on a particular risk and then do everything we can to mitigate it, including giving up our freedoms and liberties.

There’s a subtle psychological explanation. Risk tolerance is both cultural and dependent on the environment around us. As we have advanced technologically as a society, we have reduced many of the risks that have been with us for millennia. Fatal childhood diseases are things of the past, many adult diseases are curable, accidents are rarer and more survivable, buildings collapse less often, death by violence has declined considerably, and so on. All over the world — among the wealthier of us who live in peaceful Western countries — our lives have become safer.

Our notions of risk are not absolute; they’re based more on how far they are from whatever we think of as “normal.” So as our perception of what is normal gets safer, the remaining risks stand out more. When your population is dying of the plague, protecting yourself from the occasional thief or murderer is a luxury. When everyone is healthy, it becomes a necessity.

Some of this fear results from imperfect risk perception. We’re bad at accurately assessing risk; we tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange, and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar, and common ones. This leads us to believe that violence against police, school shootings, and terrorist attacks are more common and more deadly than they actually are — and that the costs, dangers, and risks of a militarized police, a school system without flexibility, and a surveillance state without privacy are less than they really are.

Some of this fear stems from the fact that we put people in charge of just one aspect of the risk equation. No one wants to be the senior officer who didn’t approve the SWAT team for the one subpoena delivery that resulted in an officer being shot. No one wants to be the school principal who didn’t discipline — no matter how benign the infraction — the one student who became a shooter. No one wants to be the president who rolled back counterterrorism measures, just in time to have a plot succeed. Those in charge will be naturally risk averse, since they personally shoulder so much of the burden.

We also expect that science and technology should be able to mitigate these risks, as they mitigate so many others. There’s a fundamental problem at the intersection of these security measures with science and technology; it has to do with the types of risk they’re arrayed against. Most of the risks we face in life are against nature: disease, accident, weather, random chance. As our science has improved — medicine is the big one, but other sciences as well — we become better at mitigating and recovering from those sorts of risks.

Security measures combat a very different sort of risk: a risk stemming from another person. People are intelligent, and they can adapt to new security measures in ways nature cannot. An earthquake isn’t able to figure out how to topple structures constructed under some new and safer building code, and an automobile won’t invent a new form of accident that undermines medical advances that have made existing accidents more survivable. But a terrorist will change his tactics and targets in response to new security measures. An otherwise innocent person will change his behavior in response to a police force that compels compliance at the threat of a Taser. We will all change, living in a surveillance state.

When you implement measures to mitigate the effects of the random risks of the world, you’re safer as a result. When you implement measures to reduce the risks from your fellow human beings, the human beings adapt and you get less risk reduction than you’d expect — and you also get more side effects, because we all adapt.

We need to relearn how to recognize the trade-offs that come from risk management, especially risk from our fellow human beings. We need to relearn how to accept risk, and even embrace it, as essential to human progress and our free society. The more we expect technology to protect us from people in the same way it protects us from nature, the more we will sacrifice the very values of our society in futile attempts to achieve this security.

This essay previously appeared on Forbes.com.

EDITED TO ADD (8/5): Slashdot thread.

Posted on September 3, 2013 at 6:41 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.