The UK Government have just announced a half-sensible security measure.
Thousands of UK workers are being trained to help respond to a future terror attack as part of an updated counter-terror strategy, ministers say. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said shop and hotel workers would be among 60,000 people able to deal with an incident.
I say half-sensible because Gordon Brown’s ranting about constant vigilance in his Observer piece spoilt things a bit:
Tens of thousands of men and women throughout Britain – from security guards to store managers – have now been trained and equipped to deal with an incident and know what to watch for as people go about their daily business in crowded places such as stations, airports, shopping centres and sports grounds.
This is not just about training and equipping professionals, however. I believe that the better we inform the public, the more vigilant the public will be…
Investing in emergency response is a smart way to spend money on security. Knowing what to do in an emergency; being able to communicate, to organise and to direct resources efficiently; and having well trained emergency service professionals will save lives and minimise the impact of any crisis, whether the cause be flood, fire, flu or fundamentalist.
Training people to recognise and act on suspicious behaviour is also a good idea however not in the way Gordon Brown is advocating. Behavioural profiling is hard to do effectively. To become good at it requires a lot of training and many years of experience dealing with suspicious people. It’s not something you can teach to 60,000 non security-professionals, like hotel workers and shopkeepers, in their lunchbreaks. Or even on a week-long crash course.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The baseline problem all but guarantees that every amateur “suspicion report” will be a false-positive because real terrorists are so rare. Therefore sending members of the public on courses that lead them to believe they’re now somehow qualified to detect terrorists will only boost the number of false positives that the real professionals have to sort through. This distracts them from pursuing more valuable intelligence from more competent sources.
Security professionals should be paid, and paid well, to maintain vigil in areas where a proper risk analysis shows it to be of benefit. Lay people should not be encouraged to fear their neighbours, nor should they be sold the lie that unusual equals suspicious, else the improved emergency response mechanisms in which we’re finally investing will be too busy arresting hay and extinguishing chaff to find the needle or save the wheat.