Occasional thoughts on diverse subjects

October 17, 2001

When I arrived at work today, the enclosed bridge linking building 4 (where I work) and building 3 (where the cafeteria is) was sealed off, with police tape on the doors. I assumed this had something to do with the on-going construction project, but it turns out that someone found several piles of white powder in building 1, so that whole part of the complex was quarantined.

Fortunately, it turned out to be “laundry soap” (which I think means “detergent”), and the cafeteria reopened before they stopped serving breakfast, so nobody was in danger of anthrax and I was able to get something to eat. Still, it’s alarming. It isn’t even the first suspicious package they’ve found in building one: a few days ago there was a warning, but it turns out it was just a box someone had set outside their office while they went to a meeting.

False alarms really are dangerous. Not by themselves, of course, but in their effect on preparedness. If the vast majority of alarms are false, then people stop taking them seriously. (Consider your most recent fire drill.) That’s fine, as long as all the alarms are false. And if they were, there wouldn’t be a problem, would there?

In a special edition of Crypto-Gram, Bruce Schneier makes similar remarks about the proposals for face-recognition software in airports, calling it “mostly useless” because the population of non-terrorists is so much larger than the population of terrorists that even an unrealistically accurate system would be wrong a thousand times for each correct terrorist identification.

I recommend the whole issue, by the way. Mr Schneier has a great deal of experience with computer and network security, and does a good job distinguishing between systems that are useful and those which merely give the impression of doing something. He also links to some useful commentary from Ross Anderson, a professor at Cambridge who studies security. (The current Crypto-Gram is also timely, looking at “cyberterrorism”, the anthrax scare, and civil liberties.)

Also responding to the Disaster is a special issue of JOHO, which looks at the value of humor, the changing nature of privacy, some scarily reasonable conspiracy theories, and the need for dissent in a democratic society. (Regarding dissent, see also Tom Tomorrow and The Onion.)