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warontheunexpected

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Worst-Case Thinking Breeds Fear and Irrationality

Here’s a crazy story from the UK. Basically, someone sees a man and a little girl leaving a shopping center. Instead of thinking “it must be a father and daughter, which happens millions of times a day and is perfectly normal,” he thinks “this is obviously a case of child abduction and I must alert the authorities immediately.” And the police, instead of thinking “why in the world would this be a kidnapping and not a normal parental activity,” thinks “oh my god, we must all panic immediately.” And they do, scrambling helicopters, searching cars leaving the shopping center, and going door-to-door looking for clues. Seven hours later, the police eventually came to realize that she was safe asleep in bed.

Lenore Skenazy writes further:

Can we agree that something is wrong when we leap to the worst possible conclusion upon seeing something that is actually nice? In an email Furedi added that now, “Some fathers told me that they think and look around before they kiss their kids in public. Society is all too ready to interpret the most innocent of gestures as a prelude to abusing a child.”

So our job is to try to push the re-set button.

If you see an adult with a child in plain daylight, it is not irresponsible to assume they are caregiver and child. Remember the stat from David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He has heard of NO CASE of a child kidnapped from its parents in public and sold into sex trafficking.

We are wired to see “Taken” when we’re actually witnessing something far less exciting called Everyday Life. Let’s tune in to reality.

This is the problem with the “see something, say something” mentality. As I wrote back in 2007:

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

And the police need to understand the base-rate fallacy better.

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Conservation of Threat

Here’s some interesting research about how we perceive threats. Basically, as the environment becomes safer we basically manufacture new threats. From an essay about the research:

To study how concepts change when they become less common, we brought volunteers into our laboratory and gave them a simple task ¬≠– to look at a series of computer-generated faces and decide which ones seem “threatening.” The faces had been carefully designed by researchers to range from very intimidating to very harmless.

As we showed people fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, we found that they expanded their definition of “threatening” to include a wider range of faces. In other words, when they ran out of threatening faces to find, they started calling faces threatening that they used to call harmless. Rather than being a consistent category, what people considered “threats” depended on how many threats they had seen lately.

This has a lot of implications in security systems where humans have to make judgments about threat and risk: TSA agents, police noticing “suspicious” activities, “see something say something” campaigns, and so on.

The academic paper.

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Needless Panic Over a Wi-FI Network Name

A Turkish Airlines flight made an emergency landing because someone named his wireless network (presumably from his smartphone) “bomb on board.”

In 2006, I wrote an essay titled “Refuse to be Terrorized.” (I am also reminded of my 2007 essay, “The War on the Unexpected.” A decade later, it seems that the frequency of incidents like the one above is less, although not zero. Progress, I suppose.

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Testing for Explosives in the Chicago Subway

Chicago is doing random explosives screenings at random L stops in the Chicago area. Compliance is voluntary:

Police made no arrests but one rider refused to submit to the screening and left the station without incident, Maloney said.

[…]

Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station. Riders can leave that station and board a train at a different station.

I have to wonder what would happen if someone who looks Arab refused to be screened. And what possible value this procedure has. Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially arousing suspicion.

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