Entries Tagged "war on the unexpected"

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Worst-Case Thinking Breeds Fear and Irrationality

Here’s a crazy story from the UK. Basically, someone sees a man and a little girl leaving a shopping center. Instead of thinking “it must be a father and daughter, which happens millions of times a day and is perfectly normal,” he thinks “this is obviously a case of child abduction and I must alert the authorities immediately.” And the police, instead of thinking “why in the world would this be a kidnapping and not a normal parental activity,” thinks “oh my god, we must all panic immediately.” And they do, scrambling helicopters, searching cars leaving the shopping center, and going door-to-door looking for clues. Seven hours later, the police eventually came to realize that she was safe asleep in bed.

Lenore Skenazy writes further:

Can we agree that something is wrong when we leap to the worst possible conclusion upon seeing something that is actually nice? In an email Furedi added that now, “Some fathers told me that they think and look around before they kiss their kids in public. Society is all too ready to interpret the most innocent of gestures as a prelude to abusing a child.”

So our job is to try to push the re-set button.

If you see an adult with a child in plain daylight, it is not irresponsible to assume they are caregiver and child. Remember the stat from David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He has heard of NO CASE of a child kidnapped from its parents in public and sold into sex trafficking.

We are wired to see “Taken” when we’re actually witnessing something far less exciting called Everyday Life. Let’s tune in to reality.

This is the problem with the “see something, say something” mentality. As I wrote back in 2007:

If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.

And the police need to understand the base-rate fallacy better.

Posted on November 18, 2018 at 1:12 PMView Comments

Conservation of Threat

Here’s some interesting research about how we perceive threats. Basically, as the environment becomes safer we basically manufacture new threats. From an essay about the research:

To study how concepts change when they become less common, we brought volunteers into our laboratory and gave them a simple task ­– to look at a series of computer-generated faces and decide which ones seem “threatening.” The faces had been carefully designed by researchers to range from very intimidating to very harmless.

As we showed people fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, we found that they expanded their definition of “threatening” to include a wider range of faces. In other words, when they ran out of threatening faces to find, they started calling faces threatening that they used to call harmless. Rather than being a consistent category, what people considered “threats” depended on how many threats they had seen lately.

This has a lot of implications in security systems where humans have to make judgments about threat and risk: TSA agents, police noticing “suspicious” activities, “see something say something” campaigns, and so on.

The academic paper.

Posted on June 29, 2018 at 9:44 AMView Comments

Needless Panic Over a Wi-FI Network Name

A Turkish Airlines flight made an emergency landing because someone named his wireless network (presumably from his smartphone) “bomb on board.”

In 2006, I wrote an essay titled “Refuse to be Terrorized.” (I am also reminded of my 2007 essay, “The War on the Unexpected.” A decade later, it seems that the frequency of incidents like the one above is less, although not zero. Progress, I suppose.

Posted on December 1, 2017 at 9:56 AMView Comments

Economist Detained for Doing Math on an Airplane

An economics professor was detained when he was spotted doing math on an airplane:

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man ­– with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent –­ boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.

The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over. He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater — a look he would later describe as “simple elegance” — but something about him didn’t seem right to her.

She decided to try out some small talk.

Is Syracuse home? She asked.

No, he replied curtly.

He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused ­– perhaps too laser-focused ­– on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

Rebuffed, the woman began reading her book. Or pretending to read, anyway. Shortly after boarding had finished, she flagged down a flight attendant and handed that crew-member a note of her own.

This story ended better than some. Economics professor Guido Menzio (yes, he’s Italian) was taken off the plane, questioned, cleared, and allowed to board with the rest of his passengers two hours later.

This is a result of our stupid “see something, say something” culture. As I repeatedly say: “If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.”

On the other hand, “Algebra, of course, does have Arabic origins plus math is used to make bombs.” Plus, this fine joke from 2003:

At Heathrow Airport today, an individual, later discovered to be a school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a compass, a protractor, and a graphical calculator.

Authorities believe she is a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement. She is being charged with carrying weapons of math instruction.

AP story. Slashdot thread.

Seriously, though, I worry that this kind of thing will happen to me. I’m older, and I’m not very Semitic looking, but I am curt to my seatmates and intently focused on what I am doing — which sometimes involves looking at web pages about, and writing about, security and terrorism. I’m sure I’m vaguely suspicious.

EDITED TO ADD: Last month a student was removed from an airplane for speaking Arabic.

Posted on May 9, 2016 at 1:15 PMView Comments

Living in a Code Yellow World

In the 1980s, handgun expert Jeff Cooper invented something called the Color Code to describe what he called the “combat mind-set.” Here is his summary:

In White you are unprepared and unready to take lethal action. If you are attacked in White you will probably die unless your adversary is totally inept.

In Yellow you bring yourself to the understanding that your life may be in danger and that you may have to do something about it.

In Orange you have determined upon a specific adversary and are prepared to take action which may result in his death, but you are not in a lethal mode.

In Red you are in a lethal mode and will shoot if circumstances warrant.

Cooper talked about remaining in Code Yellow over time, but he didn’t write about its psychological toll. It’s significant. Our brains can’t be on that alert level constantly. We need downtime. We need to relax. This is why we have friends around whom we can let our guard down and homes where we can close our doors to outsiders. We only want to visit Yellowland occasionally.

Since 9/11, the US has increasingly become Yellowland, a place where we assume danger is imminent. It’s damaging to us individually and as a society.

I don’t mean to minimize actual danger. Some people really do live in a Code Yellow world, due to the failures of government in their home countries. Even there, we know how hard it is for them to maintain a constant level of alertness in the face of constant danger. Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about this, making safety a basic level in his hierarchy of needs. A lack of safety makes people anxious and tense, and the long term effects are debilitating.

The same effects occur when we believe we’re living in an unsafe situation even if we’re not. The psychological term for this is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance in the face of imagined danger causes stress and anxiety. This, in turn, alters how your hippocampus functions, and causes an excess of cortisol in your body. Now cortisol is great in small and infrequent doses, and helps you run away from tigers. But it destroys your brain and body if you marinate in it for extended periods of time.

Not only does trying to live in Yellowland harm you physically, it changes how you interact with your environment and it impairs your judgment. You forget what’s normal and start seeing the enemy everywhere. Terrorism actually relies on this kind of reaction to succeed.

Here’s an example from The Washington Post last year: “I was taking pictures of my daughters. A stranger thought I was exploiting them.” A father wrote about his run-in with an off-duty DHS agent, who interpreted an innocent family photoshoot as something nefarious and proceeded to harass and lecture the family. That the parents were white and the daughters Asian added a racist element to the encounter.

At the time, people wrote about this as an example of worst-case thinking, saying that as a DHS agent, “he’s paid to suspect the worst at all times and butt in.” While, yes, it was a “disturbing reminder of how the mantra of ‘see something, say something’ has muddied the waters of what constitutes suspicious activity,” I think there’s a deeper story here. The agent is trying to live his life in Yellowland, and it caused him to see predators where there weren’t any.

I call these “movie-plot threats,” scenarios that would make great action movies but that are implausible in real life. Yellowland is filled with them.

Last December former DHS director Tom Ridge wrote about the security risks of building a NFL stadium near the Los Angeles Airport. His report is full of movie-plot threats, including terrorists shooting down a plane and crashing it into a stadium. His conclusion, that it is simply too dangerous to build a sports stadium within a few miles of the airport, is absurd. He’s been living too long in Yellowland.

That our brains aren’t built to live in Yellowland makes sense, because actual attacks are rare. The person walking towards you on the street isn’t an attacker. The person doing something unexpected over there isn’t a terrorist. Crashing an airplane into a sports stadium is more suitable to a Die Hard movie than real life. And the white man taking pictures of two Asian teenagers on a ferry isn’t a sex slaver. (I mean, really?)

Most of us, that DHS agent included, are complete amateurs at knowing the difference between something benign and something that’s actually dangerous. Combine this with the rarity of attacks, and you end up with an overwhelming number of false alarms. This is the ultimate problem with programs like “see something, say something.” They waste an enormous amount of time and money.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in a Code White society are much better served acting like we do. This is something we need to learn at all levels, from our personal interactions to our national policy. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many of our counterterrorism policies have helped convince people they’re not safe, and that they need to be in a constant state of readiness. We need our leaders to lead us out of Yellowland, not to perpetuate it.

This essay previously appeared on Fusion.net.

EDITED TO ADD (9/25): UK student reading book on terrorism is accused of being a terrorist. He was reading the book for a class he was taking. I’ll let you guess his ethnicity.

Posted on September 24, 2015 at 11:39 AMView Comments

Child Arrested Because Adults Are Stupid

A Texas 9th-grader makes an electronic clock and brings it to school. Teachers immediately become stupid and call the police:

The bell rang at least twice, he said, while the officers searched his belongings and questioned his intentions. The principal threatened to expel him if he didn’t make a written statement, he said.

“They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?'” Ahmed said.

“I told them no, I was trying to make a clock.”

“He said, It looks like a movie bomb to me.'”

The student’s name is Ahmed Mohamed, which certainly didn’t help.

I am reminded of the 2007 story of an MIT student getting arrested for bringing a piece of wearable electronic art to the airport. And I wrote about the “war on the unexpected” back in 2007, too.

We simply have to stop terrorizing ourselves. We just look stupid when we do it.

EDITED TO ADD: New York Times article. Glenn Greenwald commentary.

EDITED TO ADD (9/21): There’s more to the story. He’s been invited to the White House, Google, MIT, and Facebook, and offered internships by Reddit and Twitter. On the other hand, Sarah Palin doesn’t believe it was just a clock. And he’s changing schools.

EDITED TO ADD (10/13): Two more essays.

Posted on September 16, 2015 at 10:09 AMView Comments

Testing for Explosives in the Chicago Subway

Chicago is doing random explosives screenings at random L stops in the Chicago area. Compliance is voluntary:

Police made no arrests but one rider refused to submit to the screening and left the station without incident, Maloney said.

[…]

Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station. Riders can leave that station and board a train at a different station.

I have to wonder what would happen if someone who looks Arab refused to be screened. And what possible value this procedure has. Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially arousing suspicion.

Posted on November 7, 2014 at 9:59 AMView Comments

False Positives and Ubiquitous Surveillance

Searching on Google for a pressure cooker and backpacks got one family investigated by the police. More stories and comments.

This seems not to be the NSA eavesdropping on everyone’s Internet traffic, as was first assumed. It was one of those “see something, say something” amateur tips:

Suffolk County Criminal Intelligence Detectives received a tip from a Bay Shore based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee. The former employee’s computer searches took place on this employee’s workplace computer. On that computer, the employee searched the terms “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks.”

Scary, nonetheless.

EDITED TO ADD (8/2): Another article.

EDITED TO ADD (8/3): As more of the facts come out, this seems like less of an overreaction than I first thought. The person was an ex-employee of the company — not an employee — and was searching “pressure cooker bomb.” It’s not unreasonable for the company to call the police in that case, and for the police to investigate the searcher. Whether or not the employer should be monitoring Internet use is another matter.

Posted on August 2, 2013 at 8:03 AMView Comments

Obama's Continuing War Against Leakers

The Obama Administration has a comprehensive “insider threat” program to detect leakers from within government. This is pre-Snowden. Not surprisingly, the combination of profiling and “see something, say something” is unlikely to work.

In an initiative aimed at rooting out future leakers and other security violators, President Barack Obama has ordered federal employees to report suspicious actions of their colleagues based on behavioral profiling techniques that are not scientifically proven to work, according to experts and government documents.

The techniques are a key pillar of the Insider Threat Program, an unprecedented government-wide crackdown under which millions of federal bureaucrats and contractors must watch out for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers. Those who fail to report them could face penalties, including criminal charges.

Another critique.

Posted on July 29, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.