Again with the Threat Colors

When I started writing this blog, I decided that I would steer clear of political issues; there are already plenty of political blogs out there, and I didn’t think just raising the noise level would be all that constructive.  However, there are some issues which, though to some extent politically connected, display such a degree of bipartisan idiocy that I really feel compelled to comment.

Wired has an article about a proposal to change the color-coded threat levels published by the Department of Homeland Security.  The current system, with its five levels, was set up in 2002 in the wake of 9/11; the level has been changed 17 times since then.  The current threat level is Yellow – Elevated,where it has been for three years.  The threat level for air travel has been Orange – High for the same time.

The system has a superficial similarity to the “DEFCON” system of alert levels used by the US military.  There is, however, a significant difference: whereas each of the DEFCON levels (1-5) is associated with specific actions to be taken in terms of preparedness, force protection, and the like, there have never been any particular specific actions associated with the different color levels.  It is also far from obvious what, for example, an Orange alert level means (is it better or worse than Lemon-Lime?).  Bruce Schneier (who also has a blog post on this) wrote in his excellent book, Beyond Fear (2003):

Terrorist attacks are rare, and if the color-threat level changes willy-nilly with no obvious cause or effect, then people will simply stop paying attention. And the threat levels are publicly known, so any terrorist with a lick of sense will simply wait until the threat level goes down.

As he has also pointed out, keeping people in a vague state of dread about unspecific threats is not too far from a definition of the terrorists’ objectives.

The Homeland Security Advisory Council has submitted the proposal for change, citing the public’s apparent disregard of the current system:

“There is currently indifference to the public Homeland Security Advisory System and, at worst, there is a disturbing lack of public confidence in the system,” the council wrote Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary.

This is a very good summary; or, rather, it would be if the word “disturbing” were changed to something like “refreshing” or “reassuring”.  That the public does not pay attention to this nonsense indicates that they have more sense than I sometimes give them credit for.

The recommendation for fixing the system is risible: the proposal would eliminate the two lowest threat levels (Green and Blue), with Yellow becoming the default, meaning “Guarded: General Risk of Terrorist Attack”.  In other words, it will work better with three levels than five because five is too confusing.  As Bruce Schneier says, “I hope you all feel safer now.”  (I am glad to say that there are some members of the Advisory Council who favor scrapping the whole thing, as I do.)

Especially in tough economic times, we should not be wasting money on this foolishness.  (It is reminiscent of the observation that generals are inclined to plan how to fight the last war effectively.)  As a general proposition, it is much better to spend resources on improving emergency services, which are needed and useful in all sorts of emergencies (not just terrorist incidents, but hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires), rather than trying to devise defenses against specific attacks.

The New York Times has a mildly amusing OpArt piece on revising the system.

Update, Friday, 18 Sept., 15:30

I had not seen this page at Wired when I was writing the original post.  But it makes sense.  If we want members of the public to be more sensitive to the threat level, we should use colors that are more, well, sensitive.

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