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Friday, June 01, 2007

Fight terrorism with patterns

This guy at Wired writes on security issues and has a few interesting thoughts on successful anti-terror strategies. Banning liquids and scanning shoes aren't among his top ideas for stopping terrorists, since they were one-shot deals, not real threat patterns. He starts with this anecdote:

If you encounter an aggressive lion, stare him down. But not a leopard; avoid his gaze at all costs. In both cases, back away slowly; don't run...What's interesting about this advice is how well-defined it is. The defenses might not be terribly effective -- you still might get eaten, gored or trampled -- but they're your best hope. Doing something else isn't advised, because animals do the same things over and over again.
He points out that these kinds of defense tactics depend on long experience - data, patterns. This in stark contrast to the behavior of the Transportation Safety Administration:

A single instance of an attack that didn't work -- liquid bombs, shoe bombs -- or one instance that did -- 9/11 -- is not a pattern...[but] With every unique threat, TSA implements a countermeasure with no basis to say that it helps, or that the threat will ever recur.
These knee-jerk reactions - banning liquids despite how difficult they'd be to use as explosives - he says, merely misdirect resources toward a threat that is not likely to recur.

Al-Qaida terrorism is different yet again. The goal is to terrorize. It doesn't care about the target, but it doesn't have any pattern of tactic, either. Given that, the best way to spend our counterterrorism dollar is on intelligence, investigation and emergency response. And to refuse to be terrorized.
In other words, we need to work on prevention via interception, and quick responses, not on specific tactics we've seen employed.

I found this theory an interesting complement to the idea of counterfactualism - envisioning how historical events might have happened differently. This historical theory lends itself to thinking creatively how to change tactics in response to observed patterns as well, but dealing with the past.

So are these theories good? Or do they just encourage folks at the TSA to ignore potentially serious threats that make be the beginning of a pattern?

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