Thursday, September 02, 2004

Intelligence or Fear?

Bruce Schneier has drawn some security lessons from a recent scare on a flight from Sidney to Los Angeles. Shortly after take-off, the air crew found an airsickness bag in the toilet, interpreted the word "BOB" scribbled on the bag as a bomb threat, and decided to turn the plane back. Schneier's account was published in the Sidney Morning Herald and reprinted in his CryptoGram newsletter (August 2004).

We can analyse this incident in terms of organizational intelligence, as follows.

A member of the crew found the bag and noticed the word "BOB" Good observation
communication This finding was shared with the pilot and other crew Enables collective response
The word "BOB" was interpreted as "Bomb on Board" Schneier points out that there are several more likely interpretations.
The captain decided the risk was serious enough to turn the plane around and land back in Sydney. Schneier writes: "Even a moment's reflection is enough to realize that this is an extreme overreaction to a nonexistent threat."
learning The Australian transport minister blamed the person who wrote on the bag, calling him "irresponsible at the least and horrendously selfish and stupid at the worst". Schneier writes: "Irresponsible for what? For writing his name? For perpetuating common flight-attendant slang? It wasn't the writer who did anything wrong; it was those who reacted to the writing."
Prime Minister John Howard praised the crew for their quick reactions, diligence, and observation skills. Schneier writes: "I'm sorry, but I see no evidence of any of that. All I see are people who have been thrust into an important security role reacting from fear, because they have not been properly trained in how to sensibly evaluate security situations: the risks, the countermeasures, and the trade-offs."
Now every wacko in the world knows that all he needs to do to ground an international flight is to write "BOB" on an airsickness bag. Schneier writes: "Somehow, I don't think that's the outcome any of us wanted."

Further comments and examples in Schneier's blog (October 7, 2004).

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