What’s Next For Threat Level Warning Systems?

As you’ve probably heard, the U.S. Government plans to scrap the immensely retarded color-coded threat-level thing, a move that’s been met with a mix of relief, sarcasm, and skepticism. Bruce Schneier has a good article on the thing, as do sundry others. General consensus: yay, about damned time.

While everyone points and says “I told you so”, I think it’s time to consider what will, or should, come next.

That there is going to be something new is a certainty, in my mind. The only question remains what form it’ll take, something I have a few ideas about.

The government has a vested interest, purely for image and public-relations reasons, to replace the existing system, as it’s become a near-universal target for mockery, scorn, and derision. Yet, on the assumption that they can – and will – learn from the mistakes of the Rainbow of Terror, it has to be assumed the replacement will be “better”, if only marginally. How could you go about this? By setting some basic design goals.

The system should be finer-grained than the existing five-level one, to allow for regular adjustment of the prevailing threat level to manipulate the public. Yet, it shouldn’t be so complicated that small, cynical, and meaningless adjustments are largely ignored by the masses.

The system should actually be multi-tiered, so that – unlike the current system – the actual response and measures taken by the security services are not linked directly to the public fear-o-meter. At a minimum, there should be a (public) threat level – an arbitrary and meaningless public method of keeping the proles in fear – as well as a security posture level which dictates whether you get groped or fingered at the airport, et cetera – and some broader framework akin to the military Force Protection Condition, which more-or-less determines the actual vigilance and annoyance of the security services. This would mean that, handled correctly, the very occasional would-be miscreant can never be entirely sure what security conditions he or she will face at a given target at any point in the (near) future.

I assume here that the government will, without question, use such a system for blatantly political purposes – i.e. manipulate the threat warning for no particularly sound reason. “We can encourage you to cower in fear, therefore, we will.” I figure, though, that if you’re going to go that far, you might as well mess with the bad people, too.


Imagine: It’s December 27th, and the government has just dropped the new terror level from “Lobster” to “Prawn”. (Seafood is no better or worse than arbitrary colors…) In addition, travelers report on Twitter that there seem to be far fewer armed soldiers patrolling the airports, fewer quasi-random “enhanced screenings”, and fewer drug/bomb dogs patrolling the terminals, all of which imply that the security posture level and/or FPCON has been lowered, as well.

Suppose that you’re a member of a terrorist cell planning to bomb the baggage-pickup areas of one or more major airports on New Year’s Eve. High on your list of impending concerns in life are whether law enforcement is aware of your plot or not. Maybe luck is smiling on you, and you’re going to have much lowered security to worry about on the 31st, because the infidels are weak and foolish and have let their guard down. Or, maybe they’ve lowered the threat level because they’ve infiltrated your entire organization and are fully prepared – and able – to stop you at the eleventh hour. Or, maybe they know about enough about your plan to know your chosen date and time, and have relaxed things in the interim so that the jackbooted goons can be good and rested come New Year’s Eve, when the threat level is going to get ramped up to “Crab” or even “Squid”.

It’s enough to keep a would-be terrorist awake at night, second-guessing himself and popping antacids like candy.


Actual effectiveness, when all is said and done? Probably pretty damned minimal. But, well, if you’re going to screw with the population at large, you might as well screw with the bad people, and give the security forces the impression that they’re doing something relatively meaningful, rather than just going through the predictable motions of security theatre.

What do I suggest? A fourteen-level fear-o-meter, for starters; the even number means you can never attain a perfect median level, the nicely-symbolic “Level 13” is easily recognizable as “we’re all fucked now” (with the one above that being an implied “we are presently and actively in a state of being thoroughly fucked, now is the appropriate time to panic”), and the moderate-sized scale leaves a lot of room for random and arbitrary adjustments to confuse and alarm and delight the populace.

Follow that up with a, say, nineteen-level security posture system that isn’t disclosed to the public, and which exists mainly to decide just how hard the TSA, DHS, and other forces of systemic oppression have to work on any given day, and is adjustable locally (within a limited range) on a per-facility basis. (Such that while airports in geneal may be at Level Twelve, O’Hare in Chicago may actually be anywhere from eleven to fourteen.) Top it all off with a closely-held ten-level FPCON-style system which, shock horror, is actually used to indicate the real or perceived danger to the country, or at least those areas deemed worthy of protection.

That’s what I think should be done. I have a bad feeling that what’s actually going to happen is we’re going to get Threat Level System 2.0: The Alphabet, wherein the alleged threat to the country is graded between A and F, followed by a decade of constant confusion as to whether A is good and F is bad, or F is good and A is bad, and – possibly – whether B+ is better or worse than A-.

Meh. It can’t be any worse than the Rainbow Of Terror.

Published in: General | on November 26th, 2010| No Comments »

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