One the hallmarks of our 21st Century media is the "news spin" - stating information in a way that emphasizes the message that the sender wants delivered, even if the facts don't quite line up. United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's recent visit to New Zealand offers us a classic example of the spin.
In reporting on the visit, New Zealand TV went into great detail about the Secretary's warning about "body bombers" - terrorist with surgically implanted, non-metallic bombs. However, Napolitano actually said "Do we have specific credible evidence of a threat today? I would not say that we do, however, the importance is that we all lean forward."
So is the threat real or not? Why is the report headlined, "New Zealand warned over body bombers?" The answer is, of course, that terrorism theater sells products and makes for more interesting news stories that generate more advertising revenue. Instead of using the information to allay public concern, the New Zealand TV and Secretary Napolitano have instead heightened concern without offering any positive actions that the public could take. As we saw after 9/11, warnings without recommendations for action serve no purpose other than to increase public anxiety . This is particularly true when the actual threat may be questionable (remember the messages about terrorist use of crop dusters?).
Are surgically planted bombs possible? Certainly. Should anti-terrorist planners be taking them into consideration? Sure. But does the public need to be concerned over something for which there is no credible evidence and no defined defense? Definitely not.
Thanks to Bruce Schneier for passing on this information.
A short time ago I wrote about the public outrage over "pink slime", the beef additive used in most ground beef products for over ten years and certified as safe by the USDA. As I mentioned, a combination of circumstances had caught the public attention, forcing many companies to stop using it.
As with many things, this media-generated issue has had consequences. The principal manufacturing company, BPI, almost immediately shut down three of it's four processing plants, keeping the employees on salary for 60 days. The company assumed that this was a temporary setback and that once the facts were known, they would be able to resume operations. They forgot that public outrage is not easily swayed by facts. BPI had now announced that it will close the three plants permanently, costing 650 workers their jobs.
There are two lessons here, both highlighted very well by the Detroit Free Press article about the closings. The first is the speed at which the controversy grew. Fueled by social media, the issue commanded almost immediate attention and forced a reaction from major food franchisers and companies within days. This is in stark contrast to previous food issues that have taken years to garner attention.
The second lesson lies in the assumption by BPI that they were dealing with a food safety issue that could be countered by the facts that the additive was safe and had been in use without any ill effects for over ten years. What BPI missed was that people were outraged not because the product was unsafe but because they had never been told it was in use. Treating it as an additive rather than just beef would have required it to be listed as an ingredient on food packaging.
It's a costly couple of lessons and BPI is paying for them with loss of 650 jobs.
As any of my friends will tell you, I'm an action movie buff. Good or bad, new or classic, I go to see them or watch them on DVD pretty regularly. However, the one genre of action films I'm generally not too excited about is disaster films. It's not that I don't like them, I just have a bad habit of commenting and laughing at factual errors. It's very unnerving to my friends when I burst out laughing at an otherwise dramatic moment.
However, even in a non-disaster movie, I still look at some scenes of destruction and ask myself how I would have handled such an event. Actually, it's usually more something like, "Crap! I'm glad I'm not that city's emergency manager!" I've even given some thought to using movie clips or plot ideas as the basis for exercises.
Now the good folks at the Kintec Analysis Corporation have gone one better. To showcase their talents in impact analysis, they've developed a post event damage estimate for the climatic battle in the Avengers movie. (If you haven't seen it, do so!) In this battle, the Avengers take on an alien invasion force out to conquer earth (what else?) and the result is chaos on the streets of New York. Kinetic estimates the damage from the battle at $160 billion dollars.
What makes this so impressive (and worth blogging about) is that the analysts at Kinetic take this fictional scenario and do a great job of identifying real issues that would have arisen if it had been real. They describe a methodology for assessing the damage and apply it to the damage seen in the film. They consider insurance questions (does the participation of the nordic gods Thor and Loki give insurance companies an out under Act-of-God clauses?) and issues of liability (what is the liability of the government agency that created the portal that allowed the invasion force to enter?). They even discuss the risk of hazardous materials exposure related to cleaning up alien equipment and bodies.
So see the movie, read the damage estimate, and consider how you could use this idea to make your exercises more interesting.
Thanks to Art Taber for sending me the link to the damage estimate!
Phillip K. Dick's short story, Minority Report, later made into a hit movie with starring Tom Cruise and Max von Sydow, tells the story of a law enforcement program set up to prevent crimes by predicting future criminal acts. The story centers on a man who believes he is falsely accused and must prove he is innocent of a crime he hasn't yet committed. More importantly, the story raises the moral question of whether a person should be punished for a crime they have not yet committed.
Unfortunately, the question may not be hypothetical. The Department of Homeland Security is working on Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a program designed to monitor physiological and behavioral clues to identify potential terrorists. The concept is to look for statistical aberrations in body language, heart and respiration rates, etc. and use the results as predictors of future behavior.
While one can argue that this program merely automates what we've been training security people to do for years, removing human judgement from process may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have a tendency to believe in what computers tell us, even if we know the result to be intuitively wrong.
In a deeply thoughtful article on FAST and the false-positive paragraph, masters candidate Alexander Furnas demonstrates that the large number of false positives will actually aid terrorists by diverting security resources to resolve these false positives.In essence, the real terrorists will get lost in the crowd of innocent travelers singled out for additional screening.
Security expert Bruce Schneier looks at the problem from a slightly different perspective that should give us pause, "If FAST determines you are guilty of a crime you have not yet committed, how do you exonerate yourself?"
I'm constantly amazed at the things that the government seems to have time to think about. Thanks to the good folks over at the Consumerist blogsite, I am now in a position to advise you on your need for a social media will. It seems someone over at USA.gov took time out from solving the nation's problems to deal with this weighty issue.
According to the article on USA.gov, you should:
Clearly the person that wrote this is not too clear on the concept. I have friends who could die and you wouldn't know it from their social media sites. They post to their blog maybe once every two or three years, tweet to their five friends, and limit Facebook to their immediate family. And what about the security of passwords? We constantly advise folks to change them regularly, make them complex and (wait for it) NEVER WRITE THEM DOWN!
Don't get me wrong. Estate planning is something requiring serious attention from everyone, particularly if you have a family to protect. In fairness, USA.gov does have a page on estate planning that discusses advanced medical directives and wills (but not powers of attorney, oddly). But a social media will? I think my family will have more pressing concerns when I die than whether my newsletter gets published on time.