Crying Wolf: Do Security Warnings Help?

The color-coded system, which was developed under the Bush administration soon after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to inform the public about terror threats, has been the butt of many a joke and the target of many a critique for being too vague to be effective.

"Like yesterday, apparently, [it] went from blue to pink and now half the country thinks we're pregnant," "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno said on March 14, 2002. "To give you an idea how sophisticated this system is, today they added a plaid, in case we were ever attacked by Scotland."

Secretary Napolitano Launches Review of Warning System

On July 14, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a task force to conduct a 60-day review of the system to assess its effectiveness. Members of the public have also been invited to contribute suggestions and opinions.

As the review is currently in effect, DHS spokesman Matt Chandler wouldn't elaborate on the motivation behind the review or the comments that have been received.

"It's just a review of the current system ... to determine if the system we currently have effectively communicates homeland security threats," he said.

But though the DHS is reluctant to comment on how efficient the system is, others are not.

Jack Cloonan, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and security expert, said that though the system makes sense conceptually, the inability of it to convey details of the threats has rendered the warnings useless to the public and frustrating to security professionals.

Color-Coded System Attracts Ridicule

"In the post 9/11 world, it is not sufficient to just say 'unspecific sources provided vague or uncorroborated information about a possible attack,'" he said. "The criticism the HSAS received was justified in my mind because it lead the public to believe the Secretary and DHS was crying wolf.

"The public tends to become immune to the warnings and sees them as a nuisance," he continued, adding that they need to do away with the simplistic and joke-worthy color-coded system.

As Napolitano shepherds an overhaul of the system, he said she needs to assure the public and private sector that if the threat level is raised there are solid reasons for doing so.

"The HSAS task force needs to scrap the current system in favor of fact-based analysis scored on probability," he said.

But whether warnings refer to Internet or terrorist threats, psychologists say they need to change with those they're trying to protect. Warnings have value, they say, but they have to get our attention first.

"If you're constantly bombarded with the same message over again, you tend to ignore it," said John Grohol, a clinical psychologist and founder of the online mental health resource Psych Central. "The message has lost any intensity or originality or uniqueness in our minds."

Static Messages Don't Work

When it comes to security, he said that if messages convey a constant state of heightened alert but threats never appear, the messages lose their meaning.

For example, he said that as traffic engineers grapple with the problem of getting drivers to slow down in residential areas, signs that simply say "slow down" stop working.

Although drivers might slow down at first, as they learn that they can speed up without hurting anyone, they'll stop heeding the signs.

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