Friday, April 27, 2007

See Something, Say Something?

Bruce Schneier wrote an interesting post yesterday on the relative usefulness - or uselessness - of citizen reporting of suspicious activity: the "See Something, Say Something" paradigm.

He argues that without proper training, peoplw who report suspicious activity will typically send investigators down false trails. But with training, reporting improves substantially:

People trained to be alert for something hinky will do much better than any profiler, but people who have no idea what to look for will do no better than random.
It seems to me that what he's really doing is focusing on the right question. In the aftermath of any terrorist incident or serious crime (e.g., Virginia Tech), there is a tendency to ask:

"What kind of person would do this?"

While that's an interesting question for cable news hosts and pop psychologists to chew over, it's not the most useful question for prevention efforts. Focusing on "the kind of person" can lead to all sorts of errors of misperception, especially to an untrained or minimally trained eye:

A much better question is:

"What are the precursor activities that indicate the potential for crime or terrorist activity?"

Identifying those activities provides much better - and much more objective and defensible - evidence that someone may be up to no good. It seems to me that Schneier's description of "hinky" is really about making that crucial distinction.

Cross-posted at the Institute for Preventive Strategies.

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