Friday, November 16, 2007

War on innocent but different

Bruce Schneier's essay War on the Unexpected in his latest Crypto-gram, should be compulsory reading for Gordon Brown, Jacqui Smith and their advisers. In fact they should be locked in a room - for 58 days if necessary - and made to read it repeatedly until they get the message.

"We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

This isn't the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it's happening everywhere. It's a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they're the front line of terrorism defense. "If you see something, say something" is how the ads read in the New York City subways. "If you suspect something, report it" urges another ad campaign in Manchester, UK. The Michigan State Police have a seven-minute video. Administration officials from then-attorney general John Ashcroft to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to President Bush have asked us all to report any suspicious activity...

Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to -- a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant -- now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it's a false alarm, it's not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he's wrong, it'll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he'll be praised for "doing his job" and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we're done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted...

Of course, by then it's too late for the authorities to admit that they made a mistake and overreacted, that a sane voice of reason at some level should have prevailed. What follows is the parade of police and elected officials praising each other for doing a great job, and prosecuting the poor victim -- the person who was different in the first place -- for having the temerity to try to trick them. For some reason, governments are encouraging this kind of behavior...

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

We need to do two things. The first is to stop urging people to report their fears. People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they're spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.

We don't want people to never report anything. A store clerk's tip led to the unraveling of a plot to attack Fort Dix last May, and in March an alert Southern California woman foiled a kidnapping by calling the police about a suspicious man carting around a person-sized crate. But these incidents only reinforce the need to realistically assess, not automatically escalate, citizen tips...

Equally important, politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong. And everyone needs to stop castigating, and prosecuting, the victims just because they embarrassed the police by their innocence.

Causing a city-wide panic over blinking signs, a guy with a pellet gun, or stray backpacks, is not evidence of doing a good job: it's evidence of squandering police resources. Even worse, it causes its own form of terror, and encourages people to be even more alarmist in the future. We need to spend our resources on things that actually make us safer, not on chasing down and trumpeting every paranoid threat anyone can come up with.

Ad campaigns:

Administration comments:



Public campaigns:

Law protecting tipsters:

Successful tips:

This essay originally appeared in

Some links didn't make it into the original article. There's this creepy "if you see a father holding his child's hands, call the cops" campaign:
There's this story of an iPod found on an airplane:
There's this story of an "improvised electronics device" trying to get through airport security:
This is a good essay on the "war on electronics.""

As usual, Crypto-gram is full of gems and worth perusing in full. One victim of the UK mentality of collective panic in the wake of the 7 July bombings was a man who slipped into a diabetic coma on a bus. Police shot him twice with a Taser gun, whilst he was unconscious, because they thought he was a suicide bomber. When he came round he found himself handcuffed in the back of a police van with presumably no idea of how he'd got there. Police eventually took him to hospital when he explained he was diabetic but kept the handcuffs on whilst he was treated. When they finally accepted he was telling the truth and let him go they apparently gave him a half hearted apology claiming he looked Egyptian. Nine days later Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police who thought he was a suicide bomber.

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