deli slices of security (even more on blink)

23 January 2006, 2:03 pm

I was initially critical of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink for not delivering on its implied promises, but I’ve revised my opinion of it substantially. It’s had a real impact on the way I think about certain types of situations. I still don’t think it provides a foolproof method for applying its principles, but it does offer tools for identifying problematic patterns in processes. As one example, it provides a framework for examining my misgivings about approaches to security in the post-September 2001 United States.

The administration argues that the lack of major terrorist incidents within the US demonstrates the effectiveness of the Homeland Security and Transportation Safety initiatives. This argument is obviously specious. The lack of a major incident in the first half of 2001 scarcely proved that the US was well-protected from a terrorist attack in the second half of the year. And the penetration of the new system by the “shoe bomber” and razor-blade-toting blog readers (for example) makes a strong case that the new system is not necessarily more effective at threat identification than the old system.

Back when the major concerns of airport security were preventing the influx of drugs and illegal (but peaceable) aliens, I was involved with a competitive bid to develop training for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. As part of the effort, members of our team accompanied INS personnel on airport security details and took some of the courses given to the agents. (For the record: all of the material I was exposed to was unclassified.) It was obvious that the most effective agents relied heavily on the sort of intuitive assessments Gladwell describes in Blink. In particular, they were very good at identifying people who had something to hide. Other people have written about the hazards of inexperienced personnel and over-reliance on trickable technology. But I wonder: does a process that makes all passengers nervous and uncomfortable make it fundamentally easier for people with malicious intent to slip through?

As part of my ongoing research on improving MBTA usability, I’ve been listening to the chatter between MBTA dispatchers, bus drivers, train operators, station managers, and other staff. Shortly before Christmas, toward the end of evening rush hour, I heard an exchange that that went like this:

We have an incident of an unattended package that has been sighted on the east platform of [station name].

About half a minute later, I heard the following reply:

A passenger forgot her package. She’s on her way back to the platform to retrieve it now. Please just let her get her bag.

In Gladwell’s parlance, I felt that I had ample opportunity to “thin slice” the conversation. The first speaker was officious, with a pseudo-military quality that verged on pompous. He used the passive voice and awkward, redundant, and jargon-y terminology.

The second speaker was clearly fed up with the first speaker. I had the distinct impression it wasn’t the first such conversation. The tone of voice — and the word “please” — suggested that the speaker thought it was unlikely that the woman would be allowed to get her bag back without additional hassle.

The second speaker had a good opportunity to make a realistic assessment of how likely the passenger was to pose a terrorist threat. The second speaker implied face-to-face contact with the passenger — who was probably cramming in last-minute shopping on the way home from work, and carrying one package too many. The first speaker was making decisions on the basis of a blurry picture on a monitor and (I suspect) a procedural manual revised in the wake of September 2001.

I’ve spent much of my career working on training products for state and federal agencies, and I think it’s likely that the new rule book specifies that any unattended package must got through the full threat evaluation procedure, no matter what the station manager recommends. After all, there’s always a chance that the station manager has somehow been coerced into making a false statement.

The problem is, this approach just doesn’t work. Being on high-alert forever is the same as not being on alert at all — people aren’t wired to maintain peak vigilance indefinitely. Procedures that are excessively cumbersome will eventually be disregarded. And while I understand that discounting the judgement of those closest to a potential threat situation may protect the MBTA from liability, I’m far from convinced that it’s the best way to actually increase the overall safety of the system.

One comment on “deli slices of security (even more on blink)”

  1. loudfan

    After all, there’s always a chance that the station manager has somehow been coerced into making a false statement.
    If that’s the case, he should just be sure to add that he’s in a flank two position — repeat, in a flank two position. (Sorry, that won’t make any sense to those of you not watching 24…)