Featured article: Are We Part of a Conspiracy? Surveillance and private sector coordination are often misperceived.
During pre-flight preparations at SFO last July, United employees discovered a disturbing image drawn on the tail of the aircraft near the access panel to one of the gas turbine engines. The image showed two faces, one of which could be interpreted as threatening, and the words "BYE BYE".
Fearing a possible bomb, the Captain opted to hold the flight because of security concerns and passengers, who had not yet boarded, were told the flight was delayed for maintenance reasons. Maintenance inspectors inspected the engine compartment and found nothing suspicious. They did not inspect the rest of the plane. The Captain, suspecting that the drawing was just a bit of ground crew graffiti, deemed the aircraft safe to fly and ordered the passengers boarded.
However, the flight attendants did not agree. They felt that the only way to ensure complete safety was to conduct a full security sweep of the aircraft. They refused a direct order from the United SFO inflight supervisor to return to work, which constituted grounds for dismissal under United rules. Thirteen flight attendants were terminated and the flight was canceled because of crew availability. The attendants have filed a federal whistle-blower complaint with the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration and are considering a lawsuit for wrongful termination.
This incident makes an excellent case study for decision makers. On the one hand, you have a genuine concern for passenger safety demonstrated by the flight attendants. On the other hand, you have United managers using risk analysis as the basis for deciding that a threat was not credible. Or you could describe it as an irrational fear for their own lives by the attendants versus corporate employees placing profits above safety. It all depends on your perspective.
This is what makes this such an great case study. We are taught that safety is always our first priority but the reality is that we can not guarantee complete safety and that safety comes at a cost. We are frequently in a position where we have to weigh that cost against other factors such as the credibility of the threat, expense, and public inconvenience. That sometimes means accepting a certain amount of risk.
Imagine yourself the person that had to make the decision as to whether or not to cancel this flight and conduct a full security sweep. What would have been your recommendation?
Early last month I wrote a blog titled How The Media Raises Your Anxiety Over Terrorist Attacks in which I traced the evolution of a story from a largely unsupported series of statements to a full-blown end-of-the-world type story. There is a story currently making the social media rounds that shows once again have different perspectives, bias, and additions can change even the most common sense and routine government action into a conspiracy.
In her recent article Revealed: how the FBI coordinated the crackdown on Occupy, journalist Naomi Wolf claims proof of a coordinated effort by corporations and the government to repress dissent, citing a document obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund under the Freedom of Information Act. Ms. Wolf links this pre-event surveillance and planning to the violent response by many police departments to Occupy activities, even though the original PCJF article and the related document discusses surveillance and coordination meetings, not tactical plans. Ms. Wolf’s implication is that the violence was preplanned at the direction of corporate America rather the actions of individual officers or poor departmental planning.
However, my real issue is the implication that coordinated planning between government and the corporate sector is by its very nature suspect. This is completely contrary to what we in the emergency management community have been working towards for years. Effective response requires cooperation and integration of all available resources, whether private or public. We try to anticipate problems and to develop an appropriate plan of action.
According to the General Accounting Office, 85% of the critical infrastructure in the United States is in the hands of the private sector. Threats to this infrastructure, from whatever cause, can produce significant harm to both the economy and individual citizens and are therefore the legitimate concern of government. To discharge that responsibility, it is essential that the government work closely with the private sector. To gather information on potential threats, to meet and coordinate planned activities, and to work collaboratively during response is essential. To do otherwise would be gross negligence.
Like many Americans, I’m concerned by the overuse of government surveillance and the gradual erosion of privacy. These are legitimate concerns. However, we must recognize that there are times when surveillance is appropriate and necessary and when government and the private sector must work together for the benefit of all.
Watch for a more in-depth discussion on this topic in this month's newsletter, Emergency Management Solutions.
In considering the recent hacking incident involving Sony, I’ve been trying to put myself in the position of the decision-makers who had to react to the crisis. I’ve been asking myself, “What advice would I give my CEO in this situation?” It is easy to second-guess such decisions after the fact. It is also easy to spout platitudes such as, “no negotiations with terrorists” or “we must stand firm in the face of terrorism.” But when it is your loved one that is the focus of the negotiation or your local theater that is firebombed, the discussion takes on a more personal dimension.
CEOs receive advice from many during a crisis and the nature of that advice is, to a certain extent, predictable. Corporate counsel will inevitably recommend the most cautious approach that limits company liability, for example. But too cautious an approach carries a price as well, as we are seeing in the many voices criticizing Sony’s decision to capitulate. On the other hand, a decision to continue business as usual carries enormous liability in the event an incident actually occurs.
So how do we give the best possible advice to corporate decision-makers? Ultimately, we must fall back on the fundamental emergency management skill of assessing risk. In this case, we need to ask, “What is the capability of those making threats to actually carry them out.” Secondly we must consider our own ability to block any attempts to harm the public. But this only takes us so far. We also need to consider the ramifications of any decision that we make.
Let me put this in a slightly different context. The Disney Corporation is seldom sued. The reason for this is that years ago Disney made a conscious decision not to settle frivolous lawsuits. There was clearly an initial cost in litigating frivolous lawsuits but, in the long run, this upfront costs was recouped 100 times over through the avoidance of future frivolous lawsuits. Lawsuits against Disney became an expensive proposition that yielded few rewards and few attorneys were willing to take them on without a solid complaint.
Returning to the Sony incident, we need to consider not only the ramifications of this single incident but what it will mean in terms of future incidents. Can we allow anyone with an Internet connection to dictate how we lead our lives? Risk is an inherent part of life and I believe that if we make people aware of the risk and allow them to decide whether it is acceptable or not they will support us. There are ample historical examples of this. In the end, we must take the long term view and accept that nothing we do is truly risk-free.
As I write this, San Franciscans are enduring what has been billed as the "storm of the decade". The forecast is for severe winds, which for us means sustained winds of around 30 MPH with gusts approaching 50 MPH and rainfall of up to 3 inches. The National Weather Service has issued a number of advisories, watches, and warnings.
So far we've seen steady and heavy rainfall and occasional wind gusts. I'm told about 38,000 are without power in my neighborhood and expect that we'll see some downed trees as we did in last week's storm. The emergency services have done a good job of providing advance notice and preparedness information and are standing by to deal with anything untoward. Schools have been closed for the day in many communities, including San Francisco, and a number of events have been canceled.
Whoa! Let's step back and put this in context. Is this a bad storm? You bet but it's no worse than others we have experienced. Winds of up to 50 MPH are not unusual in San Francisco (see the article below about a Hazardous Weather Outlook in November). But school closures and cancellations of planned events are. I'm not knocking the people that made these decisions - they are prudent precautions and were made after considerable thought. What I am interested in is the high level of public concern that prompted such actions.
To someone from the East Coast who regular experiences hurricane warnings, our concern over 50 MPH gusts must seem ludicrous. For those who endure winter storms that dump feet of snow or those in the Midwest who see regular flooding, 3 inches of rain may produce chuckles. Well, we in the Bay Area laughed at you when you had that minor earthquake a few years ago and went into panic mode.
The simple fact is we fear what we don't understand. After three years of drought, many in the Bay Area have forgotten the El Nino rains of the late 90's. We don't know what to expect from a heavy rainstorm. It doesn't help that you are reminded of the oncoming storm every time you turn on the TV or surf the net.
What can you do to relieve your anxiety? There are three simple things you can do:
Storms are unpredictable and always carry risks. Prudent precautions are never wrong. But don't let an approaching storm cause you to live in fear.
Stay dry out there!
A colleague recently posted an article from Smarter Travel that said that "counter-terrorism officials" were considering a ban on carry-on bags and personal electronics over the holidays because of intelligence that terrorists were targeting US flights bound for Europe. My first reaction was that we were in for more "terrorist theater" where thousands of travelers will be inconvenienced because of a vague threat. It also looked like a boon to baggage thieves, with all those cell phones, laptops, and cameras being placed in checked luggage, and possibly to the airlines who charge fees for checked luggage.
But my spider-sense started tingling. The threat was very specific: only Europe-bound flights were targeted, not US-bound flights. (And, of course, terrorists would never consider changing their targets just because we implemented draconian measures for those flights.) The article said that US officials had confirmed the intelligence about the attack, so I went to the original NPR article.
The NPR article originated with an article from a UK newspaper site. NPR did receive confirmation from "US officials" that they had intelligence suggesting a high-profile attack by al-Quaida over the holidays. However, the NPR article did not reference flights originating in the the US. In fact, it said just the opposite:
The plot, the U.K. newspaper reports and U.S. officials confirm, is thought to involve the smuggling of bombs onto planes bound for major cities in Europe. The plan did not seem to include any U.S.-bound flights, U.S. officials told NPR.
Turning to the original UK article, several things are immediately apparent. The intelligence is over two months old and supposedly came from US intelligence sources, according to an unnamed "airport security source". Neither Scotland Yard nor the Department of Transport (with responsibility for airline security in the UK) would comment on the allegations. According to the unnamed source, bans on carry-on bags and electronics were options that were under consideration. However, the article does a good job of explaining why such measures would be difficult to implement. And even the source says:
All electronics may be banned from hand luggage and placed in the hold, that has been considered, and there has been behaviour analysis training at airports but while it's effective, it's difficult to roll out quickly and is not a sufficient safety net.
The threat is aimed at Europe. The U.S has improved their security over the summer but we have not.
If we consider all three articles, it's easy to see how minor changes transform the threat from a UK issue to a US one, raising concerns that the Department of Homeland Security will once again over-react and make travel even more miserable than it is already. The threat of terrorism is very real, particularly in Europe but, as with any threat, it is important to keep it in perspective. We need effective security, not reactive security.